Jacob: Patriarch Par Excellence
Parshat Vayeitzei is the first of six parashiot exclusively devoted to the life of Jacob. As we will see, Jacob was the only patriarch who succeeded in raising all his children to be wholly committed to G-d’s will. It is for this reason that the Jewish people are referred to almost exclusively as Benei Yisrael, i.e., “the descendants of Israel,” “Israel” being Jacob’s other name.
Jacob succeeded because he was the synthesis of the best of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham personified loving-kindness (chesed); he exposed his disciples to Divine consciousness regardless of whether they were qualified to receive it, but he did so at the expense of conditioning them to absorb it. Isaac, on
the other hand, personified restraint (gevurah); he elevated his disciples so they could absorb Divinity, but in doing so had to forgo letting them experience spiritual levels beyond those they could reach on their own. Jacob personified reconciliation and harmony (tiferet); he was able to blend these two diametrically opposed approaches, bringing the highest levels of Divine awareness to people of even the lowest spiritual caliber, on the one hand, and ensuring that they absorb them as well, on the other.
Jacob reconciled these mutually exclusive approaches by relating to G-d in a more transcendent way. Abraham arrived at his awareness of G-d through logic and convinced others of G-d’s existence through logic. Isaac, too, based his relationship with G-d on logic: he understood that in order for reality to be
able to absorb Divinity, it had to be fit to do so, and he based his lifework on this premise. Jacob, in contrast, related to G-d in a less calculated, more naïve way, bypassing the limits of rationality. By relating to G-d in this way, he was able to raise all his children to be devoted to G-d, notwithstanding their differing personalities. Likewise, he was able to bring his disciples to levels of Divine consciousness that were beyond their ken while simultaneously teaching them how to integrate those lofty levels into their own lives.
Jacob is therefore not only the last of the three patriarchs; he is the patriarch par excellence. It is his life, more than Abraham’s or Isaac’s, that constitutes the model after which we all are to fashion our own. Nowhere is Jacob’s approach more evident than in parshat Vayeitzei. We watch Jacob marry, establish his family, and amass his wealth, all in faithful adherence to his father’s instructions.
But he pursues these goals in ways that seem to contradict the ways Isaac had pursued them: Whereas Isaac never left the Holy Land, Jacob does so freely; whereas Isaac married only one wife, Jacob marries four; whereas Isaac retreated when he was provoked by his detractors, Jacob actively confronts his. In all these cases, Jacob emulates Abraham more than he does Isaac. And just as Abraham was not fazed by the fact that Isaac was his virtual antithesis, so, too, is Isaac not fazed by the fact that Jacob is his; in fact, he is the one who sends Jacob away from the protective cocoon of his household into the idolatrous clutches of Laban. We are witness to the father’s tacit acknowledgment that in order for the son to continue in his footsteps, he has to forge his own path.
This is the message of the name of this parsha, Vayeitzei, which means, “he went out.” In order for Jacob to begin his own chapter, he had to “go out,” to leave the comforts of home and face the challenges of a hostile world. Only thus could he mature into the father capable of raising the chosen family as well as the patriarch capable of setting the chosen people on its course through history.
Rabbi Yosef B. Friedman
Kehot Publication Society