VaYetze: From Yaakov to Yisrael

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“And Yaakov was a pure man, dwelling in the tents” (Breisheet 25:27). Like his father before him, Yaakov had little interest in the wider world surrounding him, preferring to remain near home, engrossed in study. He was the direct opposite to his twin brother, who was “a man of the field”. The fact that Yaakov was cooking soup while his brother was out hunting exemplifies their very different personalities.  But as is often the case, circumstances have a profound effect on one's initial plans. The quiet life of Yaakov would not last long. 

Like his father, Yaakov is quite passive as others act upon him. It is his mother who encouraged him—perhaps insisted is a better word—to dress like his brother in order to deceive his father. Despite Eisav's anger and hatred towards him—and his plan to kill Yaakov once Yitzchak is dead—Yaakov makes no attempt to run away, only leaving home when instructed to by his parents And while his mother had urged him to “get up and flee to my brother's house”, Yaakov seems to half-heartedly “leave Be'er Sheva and head toward Haran”. 

With Yaakov far from his “tent”, major changes are in store. It is only when Yaakov is forced into the wider world that G-d first appears to him, assuring him that He will guard and protect him. Yaakov is frightened, uncertain about what may lie ahead, and does not even seem to fully internalize G-d's promise of protection. Yet he awakens invigorated.   

While a group of shepherds stands around, unable to draw water from under a covering rock, Yaakov removes it—by himself. Despite being a victim of Lavan's deceit (demonstrating how G-d "punishes" measure for measure), he spends the next twenty years making himself and those around him wealthy. He learns how to cope, even succeed and excel, as he navigates the world about him. 

Confronted by Lavan as he departed from his employ, Yaakov boldly responded, castigating Lavan for his duplicity and pointing out the justice of his cause. This is quite a different response from the one he gave or, shall we say, did not give years earlier. Nowhere does he remind Eisav or tell his father that he had legitimately purchased the birthright and its attendant blessings from Eisav himself. While the Torah notes that Eisav actually despised the birthright, Yaakov meekly accepted his fate and made no attempt to defend himself. Yet as he was about to see his brother after many years, he readied his family for war if need be, convinced of the justice of his cause. He confronted a mysterious angel, holding him to a draw and forcing his attacker to flee as daybreak arrived. He was no longer Yaakov, the one who holds on to the heels of others, but was now Yisrael, as ”you have contended with G-d and man and have prevailed” (Breisheet 32:29). His new name is indicative of his transformed personality. 

Yet upon his return to Israel, Yaakov seemed to revert to his initial, natural ways. When Dina was raped, it was Shimon and Levi who acted decisively—raising the ire of their father, who preferred to avoid confrontation. Yaakov sought to once again return to his 'tents': “and Yaakov dwelled in the land of his fathers” (Breisheet 37:1). As Rashi notes, he had wanted to live out the last years of his life in peace and quiet. But alas, that was not to be. He was the passive, even tragic, bystander as the story of Yosef unfolded. When he finally got the opportunity to go and see his beloved and long-lost son, he hesitated and was fearful, and needed the reassuring words of G-d before he would go to Egypt.     

Avraham was inquisitive by nature, seeking to explore, search for, and find G-d. Yitzchak was the man of simple faith, one who enjoyed meditating in the fields. Both were satisfied with the life they chose. But Yaakov had no such luck. “Few and hard have been the days of my life” (Breisheet 47:9). While his life may have been hard, his ability to successfully confront and overcome whatever life brought enabled him to become the father of B’nei YisrAel, the one who assured that the Jewish people would survive and thrive regardless of the challenges that we would face.