Everything the Torah shares with us about Jacob’s youth is negative.**
He takes advantage of his brother’s hunger to extort the family birthright from him. The birthright is defined as the double share of the family inheritance given the eldest son in those days. If one of my children did what Jacob did to Esau to his or her sibling, we would have had a long talk about how unacceptable his or her behavior was, and I hope Vickie and I would impose an appropriately instructive punishment.
Later at his mother’s urging, Jacob stood before his blind father, dressed in Esau’s clothes, lied twice through his teeth when he swore to Isaac, “I am Esau your first born.”
The purpose of this horrible charade was to obtain his father’s blessing that designated him as the spiritual heir to the Covenant God first made with Abraham to (ironically considering what Jacob did) make the world a better place.
Esau is furious, and Rebecca prudently advises Jacob to lay low for a while and sends him off to her home in Haran to live with her brother Laban.
Despite being designated as the principal heir to the family fortune and spiritual partner of the Eternal One, Jacob flees his home as a penniless refugee.
But on his first night away from home Jacob’s life and it direction change forever.
He encounters a God in a dream and awakes to a realization that there is a purpose to his life beyond his own selfish interests. “Surely,” he exclaims, “the Eternal One is here, but I had no clue. How awesome is this place!”
“This place” was neither the Garden of Eden or nor some magnificent edifice. “This place” was a barren desert stopping point where Jacob lay down with a rock for his pillow.
Jacob’s transformation was not instantaneous.
It would take twenty years of hard living and being tricked and cheated by Laban just as Jacob had tricked and cheated his father and brother.
But after those twenty years, we see a much different Jacob then the boy who left home.
- Twenty years later we see Jacob eager to return the value of what he stole to his brother and then some.
- Twenty years later we see Jacob, “the supplanter” fully embrace his destiny as Covenantal partner with the Eternal One
What does this mean to us?
God can appear in our lives anywhere and at any time, but like Jacob, we must be receptive to the encounter.
I believe I encountered God during the first night I was at Eisner Camp at age twelve. I could not sleep at all, and I watched the full moon move across the sky. When it disappeared completely behind a cloud, I thought I had seen its last, but it emerged to illumine the night once again. As the moon continued its journey in and out of darkness, a clear message embedded itself in my heart, a message I have called to mind often in the ensuing years:
“There will be clouds in your life. There will be things that disappoint you and darken your days. But keep moving forward. Keep trying your best, and, like the moon, your light will shine again.”
Now some will think it foolish that a twelve-year-old boy interpreted this ordinary experience as an encounter with the Eternal One, but I cling to my belief that it was. It changed the direction of my life.
The change at that moment was barely perceptible, as was the change in Jacob’s life after his dream. For me as well, the change from self-centered boy to (I hope) responsible and caring though, (like Jacob) still flawed adult took many years.
But I learned that first night at camp to open myself to the possibility that any time and any place God may be trying to tell me something or give me an opportunity to make a positive change in my life or do something good for someone.
Many will scoff at my “foolish naïveté,” but there is one thing I know for sure.
If we are all on the alert for moments when God is offering us insight as to how we can live more meaningful purposeful lives, the world in which we live would become a much better place.
For the God I worship, making the world better is the highest goal of all.
(Jewish folklore andMidrashic literature take the opposite view of Jacob’s character. I discuss these themes and how the story of Jacob can instruct our lives in the chapter, “Jacob: Is this the One to Inherit the Covenant,” in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.)