By Paul Verger, November 17, 2023
Long ago, when the forest animals saw the hunters encroaching on their habitat, they knew that they had to find a new home. The question was where, how to get there, and above all who would lead them.
They first turned to the fox. The fox was a very suave and handsome animal, very friendly to all and always cool and amusing. He had great self confidence but he actually didn’t know much about the forest beyond his immediate vicinity. He soon led them to impassible rivers, stinging nettles, and several dangerous quicksands.
In desperation they turned to the beaver. The beaver was not charismatic. He had a flat ugly tail and buckteeth. But in long years of building dams, the beaver knew his way around the forest far and wide and how to traverse its dangers. And although he was quiet, the beaver also understood how the other animals would react, and he soon led them to a green and hospitable part of the forest that the hunters could not reach.
Today’s parsha also presents us with two potential leaders, twin brothers Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac. Jacob is considered the ancestor of our people; he received the name of Israel. Esau also became a great nation, but not ours.
Over the centuries, in considering which brother became our progenitor and leader, many people have asked, “Why Jacob?”.
As a boy and a young man, Jacob would not have been your favorite cousin. He was so hyper-competitive that he grasped his brother’s heel in an attempt to be born first. He spent his days studying and was not an adventurer. He casually bargained his brother, the firstborn, out of his birthright. Later he stole his brother’s blessing through trickery, then left town in a hurry in fear of his brother’s righteous wrath.
On the other hand, Esau has a lot to appeal to our sensibilities. He was a man of the fields and the outdoors. He lived in the moment. He was affectionate toward his parents. He always brought his father the best game from his hunt, cooked to Isaac’s taste. When his mother expressed her disgust at his Canaanite wives, he married a nice Aramaean girl to please her. When his brother stole his blessing, he was justifiably angered and expressed an intention to kill him after their parents were gone. But 34 years later when he finally got his chance, he unconditionally forgave him, kissed him, and said they should walk together as brothers.
So the question remains, “Why Jacob?”
The rabbis have noted that the Torah frequently favors the last-born son, but that does not seem to me to be sufficient reason for Jacob’s ascendance.
I believe that what sets Jacob apart is his vision of the future, his determination to do what was necessary to attain it, and his understanding of the actions needed at every step. He knows that he must work hard, take risks, and above all obey the will of Hashem.
Jacob is able to plan for the future and to see beyond the moment. According to Rashi, after he turned 13, Jacob spent his time in the study tents of Shem and Eber. He had a curious mind and knew that the knowledge would be necessary in the future. In the Hirsch translation of the parsha, the initial word applied to Jacob is “single-minded”.
On his journey Jacob has a dream of angels going up and down a stairway, and realizes that he is in a sacred place, which he did not know. He accepts the sign and immediately vows to create a house of God, because he is able to adapt to changing circumstances in pursuit of God’s will.
When Jacob reaches Haran, he sees Rachel and knows he wants her for his wife. Even though he is tired from his journey, he uses his great physical strength, given by Hashem, to move the stone from the top of the well so that Rachel and her compatriots can water their sheep. Isaiah notes that those who trust in Hashem will have their strength renewed.
When Jacob asks Rachel’s father Laban for her hand in marriage, Laban requires him to work 7 years. At the end of the 7 years, Laban deceives him by sending Leah instead, and requiring him to work another 7 years for Rachel. Jacob shows great determination to work the 14 years for the woman he loves, and refuses to give up even when he is deceived.
When Jacob finally returns to his native land, his top priority is the safety of his family. He knows that his first priority is to avoid the wrath of Esau. He sends generous gifts and obsequious words ahead to placate his brother. He also prepares for battle in case the gifts and overtures fail to appease Esau. He is ready to sacrifice his own life to protect his wives and children.
When Jacob manages to reconcile with his brother, Esau suggests that their peoples walk together in unity. But Jacob fears that quarrels will break out and makes excuses to remain separate. His priority is always the safety of his family and his future nation.
Later when his daughter is assaulted by the son of the chief of Shechem, Jacob does not raise the issue with the chief until his sons return, to avoid instigating a quarrel while his forces are divided. When his sons Simeon and Levi massacre the village without consulting him, he upbraids them not so much for their savagery but for their shortsightedness. He tells them that they have discredited the family by breaking their promise of peace, and that in doing so they have endangered the family by raising the possibility of the neighboring tribes uniting against them. Once again Jacob is giving top priority to the security and prosperity of his family and future nation. As the head of a small tribe with ambitions to conquer land and the need to deal with powerful nations, Jacob is completely focused on the situation his tribe faces.
There is a lesson here for modern times. In the Torah, the leaders of the Israelites are chosen by Hashem. Today in the advanced countries we choose our own leaders. In some ways Esau is like the fox in our story. He has many endearing qualities, but does not plan for the future or seek to understand alternatives. Jacob, on the other hand, resembles the beaver. He plans ahead, considers all factors, and knows how to lead his people. In choosing our leaders, it is important to choose men and women with wisdom, compassion and understanding of the available strategies and pitfalls of the current situation, rather than those who appeal only to our emotions.