On Sunday, about a dozen congregants met for our “drop-in text study” session, offered through the Temple’s Adult Ed program. We were discussing the week’s Torah portion, where Jacob crosses a river to begin a new chapter in his life, hopefully leaving some of the deceit and darkness behind him. He anxiously meets his brother, Esau, who greets him with a hug and a kiss. And then Jacob promptly lies to Esau. So much for a clean slate.
Later in the portion, Jacob’s sons deceive the men of Shechem, and then massacre them and loot the town, in response to the “rape” of Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah.
And what is Jacob’s response? Outrage? Sadness? Apology? No, he castigates his sons for ruining his reputation. Beyond that, he is silent. It is one of the low points in the tragedy of Jacob, as the arc of his story nears its end. As Gunther Plaut says in his commentary:
Jacob is silent because he has in fact nothing to say. He has already become the object of events and has entered the twilight of his life. . . . It thus becomes painfully clear that “Israel” was merely a name, not a reward: a potential, not a fulfilment. Literally and figuratively, Jacob will limp through the remainder of his life.
So, asked one of the Torah studiers, why is it that we revere this man? Why do we honor him as our Patriarch?
Just the kind of question that makes text study so interesting! Why, indeed. What would Judaism be like if we, instead, were descended from Esau? He is depicted as simple, straightforward, strong, reliable, an outdoorsman and hunter. Isn’t that a better role model for us?
Other religions offer role models that are perfect, and enjoin their adherents to try to be like these ideals. But Judaism acknowledges among its models people who are complex and have a dark side to them.
And isn’t that exactly the point? Aren’t our lives complex, filled at times with moments of lightness and holiness, and with a striving for the Good, but also troubled by dark thoughts and emotions, and worry over our failures to live up to our ideals? Isn’t that why we need a Day of Atonement, to ask God for forgiveness and to forgive ourselves for our incompleteness?
We decided on Sunday that that is why Jacob works as a role model. Yes, he is at times deceitful and has dark moments, but he is also resilient and striving. Judaism allows us to recognize in ourselves our kinship with the complicated, deceitful, changeable, educable, intensely human Jacob.
We have four more sessions of our “drop-in text study,” Sunday mornings at 11:15. Come join us. Maybe you will ask the question that makes the whole discussion worthwhile.