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.