Jacob verses Jacob: Thoughts on Vayeshev

Image: “Jacob & the Angel” by Anthony Armstrong

After many years in self-imposed exile Jacob finally faces his demons and returns to Canaan, the scene of his crime. Jacob has to deal with a lot of conflict in this week’s section of the story. A property dispute with his uncle Laban, a wrestling contest with some unidentified being, and a reckoning with his brother Esau. Yet, the greatest opponent who Jacob confronts in Vayigash is himself.

Jacob must decide what kind of Jacob he wants to be. What kind of behavior does the situation call for? Should he be tactful, fearful, conciliatory, aggressive, apologetic, diplomatic, grateful, philosophical or pragmatic? Will we see the conniving Jacob who stole from his brother and deceived his father? Will we see the courageous, romantic Jacob who scares off bullies at the well and impresses the fair young Rachel with his bravery and strength? Will we see the hypocritical Jacob who bemoans being tricked but refuses to acknowledge the tricks he’s played on others? Will we see the confidence of a middle aged man returning home with family and fortune? Or will we see the cowardice of a man who can never be genuine with anybody? Will the real Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebecca, please stand up?

The answer to this question is “all of the above.” Each of these Jacobs shows up. Aspects of him that we have seen more than once before appear yet again. Perhaps the most disturbing lesson of the story is that, after all these years, it is not Esau, the brother bereft of the blessing, who is obsessed with the wrongs of the past. Esau, as the young folks say, is “over it.” Jacob, the victimizer, is the one who is preoccupied with the past. Even after the great wrestling contest, with whomever it was, he still isn’t over it. He’ll never be over it. The ultimate consequence of the theft is that Jacob cannot look Esau in the eye for even a moment without guilt and remorse. The single most difficult opponent we face is that of our own conscience. At the end of the day, the assessment that matters most is the one we form for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,


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