One of the recurring themes in Yakov’s life is deception – both as perpetrator and victim.

Yakov opportunistically buys the birthright from Esau and tricks his father into giving him Esau’s blessings. This sets a course of events in emotion, wherein Yakov must flee to Lavan, who deceives Yakov by substituting Leah in place of Rachel, causing lifelong tension between their children; culminating in the brothers kidnapping and cover-up of Yosef; the effects of which Yakov describes at the end of his life:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – And Jacob said unto Pharaoh: ‘The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojournings.’ (47:9)

It is simplistic to hand wave and whitewash away Yakov’s responsibility for the events of his life. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches us to acknowledge the flaws our heroes proudly, so what we can learn that perfection is elusive, but excellence is not.

It’s easy to say Yakov did nothing wrong, but the Torah suggests that he might have:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד – When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with an extremely great and bitter cry (27:34)

The Zohar remarks that Esau’s tears caused thousands of years of suffering, and R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the Torah narrates emotions sparingly. The inescapable conclusion is that Yakov should not have gone through with his mother’s scheme.

At the very least, there is moral ambiguity in Yakov’s actions, if not outright error.

As Yitzchak neared his deathbed, Rivka knew that her husband could not see what Esau truly was, so instructed Yakov to misappropriate Esau’s blessing:

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וישתחו (וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ) לְךָ לְאֻמִּים – הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ; אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר, וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ – May God give you of the dews of heaven, and of the fats of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you. Lord over your brother, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesseth you. (27:28,29)

R’ Jonathan Sacks sharply notes that this blessing for wealth and power is not the blessing of Avraham’s covenant, which is about family and land. Yishmael received a blessing for power and wealth, and Esau could too.

In the aftermath of Yakov and Rivka’s deception, Yakov flees, and his father blesses him, transparent with who he is speaking to:

וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים. וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ–לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם – God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of people; and give you the blessing of Avraham – to you, and your children together; that you may inherit the land of your residence, which God gave to Avraham. (28:3,4)

By imparting Avraham’s blessing to Yakov with no pretenses, the Torah suggests that the entire ruse orchestrated by Rivka and carried out by Yakov was entirely unnecessary, and the strife and deception that characterizes Yakov life began with an honest misunderstanding of God’s blessing.

God’s blessing is abundant; not exclusive or zero-sum. Yishmael and Esau can also have Gods’ blessing; it will not detract from our own.

Perhaps when they meet again years later, Yakov had learned this lesson:

קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ, כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל; וַיִּפְצַר-בּוֹ, וַיִּקָּח – “Please take my blessings that I gift to you; because God has been gracious with me, and I have enough,” he urged him; and he took it. (33:11)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the material gifts to Esau were the literal return of the material blessing – בִּרְכָתִי – and bowing to Esau was a return and submission to Esau’s power; acknowledging the great wrongdoing of his youth. Instead of trying to usurp Esau’s position in the family and taking his blessings; Esau could be Esau, and Yakov could be Yakov – וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב; אָחִי, יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ.

Only once Yakov fights off the specter of trying to be like Esau does he earn the name and title of Yisrael.

Perhaps the lesson is straightforward. We each have our own blessings, and we mustn’t seek our brother’s blessing. His blessing is his, and yours is yours.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

Yakov had a difficult life. He had fled his childhood home to live in hiding from his brother; he’d been cheated and overworked by his father in law; he’d been denied marriage to the love of his youth; he’d been betrayed by his firstborn son; he’d seen the rape of his daughter; he’d seen his children fight; he’d lost a son, missing and presumed death for 22 years; he’d seen his great love Rachel die in childbirth. This was not the future he had sought for his family.

When Yakov meets Paroh for the first time, he comments on how old Yakov appears, and Yakov laments his life:

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה, אֶל-יַעֲקֹב: כַּמָּה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ. וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה: מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Paroh said to Yakov, “How many have been the days, the years of your life?” Yakov said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my journies are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers, in the days of their journeys.” (47:8-9)

A good life is one of peace, understanding, and love. With such misfortune, he was understandably bitter. Yet once his family resettled in Egypt, his perspective changed:

וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה; וַיְהִי יְמֵי-יַעֲקֹב, שְׁנֵי חַיָּיו–שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, וְאַרְבָּעִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה – Yakov lived in Egypt for seventeen years, and Yakov’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years. (47:28)

Just 17 years after Yakov bemoaned his miserable life, Yakov had lived life to it’s fullest – וַיְחִי.

How did he re-frame his outlook?

The Nesivos Shalom explains that to tolerate suffering, it needs to be worth it. Yakov going to Egypt was the beginning of a dark period in the nascent Jewish people’s history, and he believed that he had failed. But reunited with his family, in harmony, he could look back and see that there had been a point, and it was worth it.

The butterfly effect describes the concept that small causes can have large effects. Every wrong turn down the broken road still led them to this point.

The maturity and introspection it took to recognise this could only happen once Yakov attained some form of peace. It gave value to everything he had been through, and he could finally be content and fulfilled.

The hand that writes history sometimes holds our hands too; if we only looked closer.

The books of the Torah transition into each other, beginning new phases in the Jewish people’s development.

The book of Shemos is known as Sefer HaGeula – the Book of Redemption, or Exodus, named for how the Jewish people achieved liberty and independence, culminating in Sinai. But only the first quarter addresses this. The remainder addresses the Mishkan and its requirement.

What does the Mishkan have to do with redemption the book is named after?

The Ramban explains that the book measures the full spectrum of redemption. Redemption of the body is incomplete without redemption of the soul. The nation only had a purpose once the Torah was given a home among the community, and the community could carry the Torah into their lives.

The conclusion of Bereishis concludes with the same theme.

The Ksav Sofer explains that Yaakov descendants bless their children to be like Efraim and Menashe, who were excellent Jews worthy of being considered as if they were Yakov’s own, while simultaneously aiding Yosef with the administration of Egypt’s government.

The story of Bereishis ends in the rise of the Jew in both spiritual and earthly pursuits on a personal level, and the story of Shemos extends that to the national scale.

There is a lovely custom to bless the children before the Friday night meal. Boys are blessed to be like Efraim and Menashe, and girls like the Matriarchs.

Why are Efraim and Menashe are the figures we want our sons to emulate more than anyone else?

Hierarchies are very important to family dynamics and structures. It is highly irregular to see “generation jumpers”. From an entire generation of cousins, they alone were considered equivalent to their uncles a generation earlier.

My Zaide explains that to excel as a Jew while born into Egyptian aristocracy is a hard thing. In comparison, it’s easy to be Yakov’s son in Yakov’s house.

Perhaps the blessing is about our hope that our children overcome everything in their way, no matter the odds.

My father explains that part of the family dynamic in the Torah is that brothers jealously compete with each other. The first pair of brothers who get along are Efraim and Menashe. Neither objected when Yaakov crossed his hand, predicting the younger son for greater things. Each was content for himself and for the other.

Perhaps the blessing is about their relationship with family, that they build each other up, instead of tearing each other down.

I like to think it’s both.