December 4, 1997
A Different Kind of
Parashat Va-Yeze (Genesis28:10-32:3)
He is our first forefather, the progenitor of theCovenant, and, yet, we do not call ourselves B'nai Avraham, thechildren of Abraham. We invoke the memory of the Akeda whenever we beg God'sforgiveness, but we do not call ourselves B'nai Yitzchak, thechildren of Isaac. We are B'nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, thedescendants of Jacob.
Jacob? Of the three, Jacob is our least likelyspiritual ancestor. He is manipulative, conniving and entirelyamoral. He exploits his brother's weakness to purloin his birthright,and then uses his father's blindness to steal his blessing. Havingsucceeded in pillaging the family, he attempts to twist the arm ofGod: Jacob made a vow, saying: "If God remains with me, if Heprotects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread toeat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house-- the Lord shall be my God...I will set aside a tithe for You"(Genesis 28:20-22). What sort of spiritual hero is this?
How he pales when compared to the epic heroes ofother traditions. Elsewhere, we read of the spiritual hero born ofimmaculate conception and living a life perfect and untouched by sin.His every word measured and every gesture considered, his life, frombeginning to end, is a masterwork of moral wisdom. Or we read of ahero who begins mortal, even sinful, but through grace or will, findshis way to a state of perfect wisdom, perfect action, perfect peace,returning to our world only to bring others along the path towardperfection.
Jacob is a different kind of spiritual hero. He isnot born whole. He is not born good. He is not born with a divinecharacter. Nor does he ever achieve a perfection of character orspirit. Jacob is not a hero because of what he is. He is a herobecause of what he is becoming. The Jacob narratives chronicle thegrowth of a soul, the development of a mensch. They portray a processof learning, of change, of struggle, of defeat, of renewal, of deathand rebirth. It is this dynamic that charges the narrative withpower. And in this process of growth is the hand of God revealed.Like his dream, Jacob's life is a "ladder, set on the ground, withits top reaching into the sky, and the angels of God going up anddown on it."
We read of heroes battling demons, dragons anddevils in mythical lands, storming the heavens to steal the secretsof the cosmos. Again, Jacob is a different kind of hero. What is thesetting of Jacob's struggle? A place far more dangerous: the family.Jacob will be hunted by his brother, deceived by his uncle,manipulated by his wives, and finally devastated by the murderousjealousy. In each encounter, Jacob will be defeated. But each defeatdeepens him, bringing him closer to wholeness, to wisdom, and openshim to love.
The story of Jacob holds out the promise that anylife, any soul, any character can be rescued, elevated, purified,ennobled, saved. This faith makes him our spiritual ancestor. Veryfew of us will know spiritual perfection. We are not born toperfection, nor will we find it at the end of arduous meditation.Through Jacob, we share the spirituality of the journey. ThroughJacob, we understand that God is not found at journey's end, but ispresent in each step. Each step has its own perfection. To openoneself to love a partner. To make peace with a brother. To mourn andthen to rise and live again. God is present in each step, eachchoice, each moment.
"Remember," God assures Jacob as he begins hisjourney, "I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and willbring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have donewhat I have promised you" (Genesis 28:15).
Remember, God says, I'm not finished with you.Shabbat Shalom.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.
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