Yom Rishon, 23 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Parashat Toldot 2012

Parashat Toldot by Rabbi Yuval Keren
16th November 2012

It is said about Jacob that he was a “perfect man and a camp dweller” (Gen 25:27). Was he as perfect as claimed in the Torah?

When Esau and his twin brother Jacob were born they both receive a significant name. Esau came out first and was immediately named according to his external appearance. To this red and hairy boy they gave the name ‘Esau’, ‘the hairy one’ (Gen 25:25). Matters were a little more complicated with the second twin who was born holding his brother’s heel (akev). This one was not named according to his physical appearance but according to his actions. He came out holding his brother’s heel and was therefore named ‘Yaakov’, ‘the heel-holder. (Gen 25:26). There is one slight problem with this translation of name Yaakov, as it is expressed in the future tense and not in the past or present tense. A better translation would therefore be ‘he will hold his brother’s heel’. This is confirmed later in the portion following Jacob’s theft of Isaac’s blessing for Esau. His brother accuses him: “Was he, then, named ‘Yaakov’ because he twice pursued me (‘vaya’akveni’)? (Gen 27:36).

Here Jacob’s name became clearer. Jacob is not a mere heel-holder. He is his brother’s pursuer and his name reflects the relationship between him and his brother from birth up to the moment of Jacob’s departure from his parents’ home.

Years later and during the night before the brothers meet again, Jacob’s name is transformed. At the passage of·Jabok Jacob struggles with God’s angel who blesses him and gives him the name Israel – the one who struggles with God. Posthumously Jacob receives yet another name – ‘Yeshurun’ the straight one. (Deut 32:15)

When I was in the process of applying to Rabbinic school I was asked to choose a Jewish hero and I immediately chose Jacob. I do not consider him to be a perfect role model, as it appears to me that everything in Jacob’s personal life was less than straight and perfect. He cheated his brother and his father. He was not completely honest with his father in-law. He favoured one wife over the others and he repeated the same mistake with one of his sons and then with a grandson.

Yet, Jacob spends a lifetime dealing with his inner and outer conflict between his three apparent names. At times he is the pursuer, the cheater who favours one family member over another. At times he is struggling with God and trying to make sense of his life, his faith and the world around him. There are moments in his life when everything becomes clear and the path ahead is straight and narrow.

I consider this inner interplay to be a part of our Jewish and human makeup and the less than perfect character of Jacob is an integral part of each and every one of us. We are constantly engaged in inner battle between our selfish needs, and our pursuit of material gain and fame, and our selfless thoughts and actions that we pursue for the sake of Heaven.

It is not the physical Jacob that we should aim for, and it is not the spiritual Yeshurun. It is the Israel who will forever battle between these two worlds.