As if the memory of Cain and Abel and Isaac and Ishmael had not warned our ancestors of the dangerous and destructive form that sibling rivalry can take, parashat Toldot brings another painful encounter between brothers. Twins Jacob and Esau, whose intertwined destinies and perpetual struggle seem to have been set out for them before their birth.
Whilst pregnant, their mother Rebekah is told:
“Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”
Rashi, commentating on the idea that one of those peoples shall be stronger than the other, introduces a dichotomy that will shape both their relationship with each other, and perhaps their own internal struggles too. Rashi see a history unfold where whenever Jacob rises, Esau falls. Jacob gains the birthright, and Esau loses out. Later on, the Jerusalem of Jacob’s descendents falls to the Romans who are associated with the descendents of Esau (Edom). Thus he teaches that this struggle is cyclical, one sibling rises at the expense of the other.
The dynamics of Jacob and Esau’s relationship are played out from the moment of their birth. Though they share a womb, only one can be the first born. This particular struggle is won by Esau who emerges red and hairy, with Jacob holding onto his heel as if fighting to the last moment to be the child to emerge first. This moment of birth at Esau’s heel defines Jacob’s life, and is the source of his name יעקב.
Jacob and Esau’s rivalry continues, each finding favour in the eyes of one of their parents, but the inescapable legacy of being born second haunts Jacob to the point that he takes advantage of his brother’s famished and near-death state to ensure he is sold the birthright before he aids his twin and gives him stew. His desire to dominate his brother drives him to act deceitfully and, prompted by his mother, Jacob’s rise over Esau is completed when he tricks his blind and dying father into blessing him. In the moment he hears his father bless Jacob, Esau calls out with a ‘great and bitter cry’, but there is no blessing for him.
Esau’s pain is acute and haunting, and yet it is no surprise in light of the future set out for the brothers at their birth. For Jacob to gain, Esau can have nothing. In the moment that he obtains the blessing, Jacob transitions from being someone whose destiny was defined by being dragged behind Esau’s heel, to someone whose identity is as a supplanter- an alternative meaning of the name יעקב. There is only space for him to be behind or in front, the text has no notion of a shared destiny, a shared blessing, or of the potential for the two brothers to be able to stand side by side.
What is striking is that whilst the name Ya’akov יעקב is so central to understanding who Jacob is, it is not the only name that he is called by in Torah.
After 20 years, Jacob and Esau are reunited. As Jacob prepares to meet his brother he is alone in the desert at night and encounters a man. They wrestle all night and in the morning Jacob refuses to let the man go unless he blesses him. The man (who tradition tells us is an angel) asks Jacob’s name and then he tells Jacob that his name will henceforth be ‘Israel’, Yisra-el, the one who wrestles or struggles with God ‘because you have fought with God and with men, and you have prevailed.’ And then Jacob lets him go.
Jacob stayed up all night fighting this man tooth and nail, and yet after this great tenacity he seems to let the man go without a blessing. Looking closer at the man’s words, there is a clue as to why Jacob did this. ‘You have fought with God and with men, and you have prevailed’. Perhaps those words ‘you have prevailed’, are what Jacob needed to hear. Rashi explains the men in question are Esau and Laban. To Jacob, these words were enough of a blessing. Jacob’s character still appears to be that of someone who is racing to the top, to the front, and the words ‘you have prevailed’ give him what he thinks he needs.
What is fascinating is that though he has a new name, Jacob is the only character in Torah whose name is changed and yet they continue to be referred to by the name that they had before.Though he has a new name, he has not fully become Yisra’el. Jacob is trapped by his need to rise to the top, to be a supplanter, and to dominate his brother. His life is still dominated by an earthly struggle and not by his relationship with God. That is why he didn’t need to wait for the blessing before he let go.
Jacob’s tragedy is the extent to which his life and identity are defined by a desire to dominate, to own the love of another, and to be the special one. If becoming fully Yisra’el is the sign of true redemption from this path, then being Ya’akov יעקב is the cautionary tale. As a people who bear the name Yisra’el, the legacy of Jacob’s journey for us is to notice the moments that might force us to be more like יעקב Ya’akov, and when our own desire to attain glory as individuals involves the denigration of others. The promise of being Yisra’el is a life free of the need to dominate others in order to receive blessing, and the ability to see each and every one of us a worthy of God’s love.
LBC rabbinic student Deborah Blausten