These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Being B’nai Yisrael

Posted on December 3, 2014 by Sarah Marx

Sar MarFor someone so easy to dislike, Yaakov is well-loved. His mother deceives her husband and eldest son in order to secure his destiny; Lavan takes him in for more than a decade and sees him as a worthy opponent; his wives’ adoration for him is almost painful to read. This pattern of veneration continues beyond the pages of Tanach into centuries of commentary. One midrash claims that, when Psalm 8 calls human beings “but little less than angels,” the line refers to him. Another asserts that Yaakov’s beauty was unparalleled in his generation, and was second only to the paradigmatic beauty of Adam himself – presumably, this opinion is drawn from his torrid sex life, because the only description of his physical appearance in Tanach is that he’s “smooth-skinned.” A third describes him as the greatest Hasid who ever lived. What is it about him? On the face of it, he’s callous, a cheater, a skeptic; why are we so compelled by him? And why does God, who named him the father of a nation, seem to agree with us?

The question is complicated by the fact that few of his stories have a simple or obvious moral. With the exception of his dream – which he didn’t even decide to have – and his building of altars, nothing he does seems to really prove his goodness. Neither do they condemn him. Instead, almost all of his decisions can be read in multiple ways, charitably or harshly or somewhere in between. In this week’s parsha, for example, after learning that Esav is nearby with four hundred men, he allows his wives and children to march before him towards his estranged and possibly violent brother. You could read this as a cowardly action: he values his family’s lives less than his own. You could read it as an affirmation of his faith: he is so committed to God, especially in the wake of his wrestling match and blessing, that he doesn’t fear for his own life or the lives of the people whom he loves most. Or you could read it as an attempt to demonstrate to Esav that he is seeking peace, and that he trusts Esav to grant that peace: just as his newly wrenched leg telegraphs his vulnerability and his position as a supplicant, so does his retinue of harmless women and young children. I don’t want to argue for any one of these readings; all of them can be supported by text. Indeed, perhaps we can imagine a Yaakov who combines elements of all three – his motives are craven and devout and dovish all at the same time. This complexity, echoed in almost every event in Yaakov’s life, doesn’t make his story easy to tell. But it makes his story so much more interesting – so much more human! Our actions aren’t always immediately understandable, either for ourselves or others observing us; they have the potential to reflect both our greatest flaws and our greatest beauties.

Arguably, Yaakov’s greatest flaw is itself his greatest beauty: his outsized passion. When well-directed, this passion gives rise to scenes of stunning loveliness. It manifests in his romantic love, in which he is as demonstrative as his father Yitzchak was understated – upon seeing Rachel for the first time, he kisses her and lifts up his voice and weeps. It allows him a visionary capacity that culminates in two iconic religious experiences; it pushes him to build altar after altar to God, and in doing so to imbue his land and wanderings with holiness. But, when unrestrained, it causes him to tear his family apart three times over. In pursuing his destiny, he breaks his brother’s heart. In striving for the woman he loves, he pits sister against sister. In doting on his favorite son, he plunges his children into chaos and indirectly leads his people into hundreds of years of slavery.

In this way, he resembles another remarkable figure, David, with whom he has much in common. Both are shepherds, polygamists, great lovers, great seers, cowardly and heroic, selfish and enraptured with the world. Both are simultaneously human and larger than life.

For that matter, maybe there’s a reason that the people of Israel chose David as a leader, and that they bear Yaakov’s adopted name. Both of these men, in their impetuousness, their fury and their love, look like the Biblical picture of b’nai Yisrael. The people’s first impulsive response to the giving of Torah – “we will do and we will hear” (Shemot 24:7) – could be uttered by the same Yaakov who looked at a pile of rocks and said “surely the Lord is in this place” (Bereshit 28:16). At the same time, when they self-destruct in Korach’s rebellion, there is an echo of unbridled and destructive Yaakov. We see the same tension in the building of the Mishkan and the building of the golden calf, or spiritually ardent Hannah and Eli’s sex-crazed, corrupt sons. And even after the Biblical period, it is there in the days of Gemara, in the fine line between machloket and zealotry – fervent disagreement on the one hand, and closed-minded violence on the other, both in the service of a grand vision.

Even after his blessing and renaming, Yisrael is alternately drawn towards extraordinary goodness and extraordinary cruelty by his passion. Perhaps this is why he is called both Yisrael and Yaakov all his life, sometimes both in the same sentence: we recognize that both possibilities, the Yisrael who was named and blessed by God and the Yaakov who gave Yosef a deadly coat, are always nascent in him.

And perhaps this is why, in Shemot 19:3, we’re referred to as both b’nai Yisrael and beit Yaakov. After all, both elements exist in us, too. As human beings, we’re full of feeling – for God, yes, but also for food and clothes and power and the love of others. In listening to stories, in taking on mitzvot, in learning to struggle wisely and well with God, we engage in the constant process of renaming ourselves. We are Yaakov every day, and in both savoring and channeling our passion, we work towards becoming Yisrael. I don’t know if that’s why the sages found him so compelling. But I think it’s why I do.