We see many times when Yaakov used trickery in order to prosper. He used Esav’s tired state to press him into selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, he tricked his father into giving him the blessing of the first-born, and again, in this week’s parashah, he tricks his uncle, Lavan, out of the best of the sheep. In chapter 30, he entices the strongest of the flock to breed with his sheep, the speckled or brown ones. The result is that Lavan’s sheep are the weakest of the flock, and that Yaakov left with a large herd of his own. 


How do we reconcile this sly and opportunistic character with our moral ideals? The Midrashim tell us that he, like his father and his grandfather, was a tzaddik. When he slept and had the dream of the angels ascending and descending the ladder, not only does the Torah text itself tell us that he had a prophetic experience, but Rashi tells us that he actually was teleported to Jerusalem (Mt. Moriah) and back. He also tells us that though Yaakov might have slept at that place, he did not sleep for the fourteen years leading up to that moment, as he had been studying Torah concentratedly at Ever’s yeshivah. Next week, he will have another mystical encounter as he crosses the river Yabok, wrestles an angel, and receives the name of our people: Israel. How do we reconcile this self-serving trickster character with the saintly Torah scholar and mystic who we see in the Midrashic literature?


The Midrash tries to make our job easier by emphasizing how evil Esav and Lavan were. When Esav came to him tired from the field and ended up selling Yaakov his birthright, he was tired from murdering people. Leah’s eyes were “soft” because she had been sitting by the road asking passers-by about Esav, who her sister, Rachel, was supposed to marry, and she heard that he had been robbing and murdering people on the highway, so Leah’s eyes were soft from crying. Lavan, we are told in the Midrash we see in the Passover Haggadah, would have uprooted Israel’s existence from the outset, and nipped our lives in the bud. If the people who he tricks are such evil people, we should not feel badly about Yaakov’s way of living. 


The problem is that we need the Oral Torah in order to justify, or at least soften, Yaakov’s actions and make it possible for us to see our ancestor in a positive light. While Lavan is a dishonest character, the Biblical narrative alone does not make him wholly evil. Esav is painted as impulsive and not so wise, but not the murderer that the rabbis make him out to be. How are we to relate to the Biblical Yaakov?


The answer is that he is Yaakov Avinu, our father. He is Israel, and we are the children of Israel. What makes someone a Jew is not their moral character, their aptitude for spiritual achievement, or for Torah scholarship. Obviously, Judaism is meant to be our people’s vehicle for developing those attributes, but being a Jew is not dependent on those things. A Jew is defined by Jewish law as a person born to a Jewish mother, or one who underwent conversion involving a beit din of three rabbis, and immersion in a mikveh or other suitable body of water. Such people may be obligated to elevate themselves morally, spiritually, and intellectually through mitzvot and Torah study, but there is no guarantee that they will. Even if they do not, they are still Jews.


It is the mitzvot that are meant to inspire us to balance our own personal needs with those of others, and to treat the world with respect because of our reverence for its Creator. Stories about our ancestors tell us where our people came from, and allow us to learn from our predecessors’ imperfections just as much as they are meant to inspire us with tales of their mystical greatness.


Shabbat shalom!

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