In Parshat Toldot, Jacob was the underdog, the eternal number two, says Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes, Don’t we all sometimes feel that way?
The amazing thing is, when one steps up to the challenge and works hard in order to get to the top, one becomes all one is meant to be. This is what happened to Jacob: only after wrestling with the angel was he named “Israel” and became complete – an “ish tam”. May we all, individually and collectively, rise up to the challenge and reach our full potential. This is the message of Parshat Toldot.
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One of the most successful ad campaigns of all time, “We’re No. 2 – We Try Harder” was synonymous with the Avis Rental Car Company for half a century. The slogan worked because so many people identify with the underdog. No character in the Bible reflects why this is the case better than Jacob.
As Parshat Toldot opens, Rebecca, after taking years to conceive, demands to know why she is having such a difficult pregnancy. God responds that she is pregnant with twins, not just any twins, but two nations inside of her, locked in a struggle for power. Talk about pressure! But then God’s last sentence: “ורב יעבוד צעיר” is ambiguous. Most commentators understood it as either “The Older one will serve the Younger one”, “the more Powerful will serve the younger” or even “the Younger one will serve the older one” – these readings predict an eventual winner in the struggle. Yet there is an altogether different reading that just a few commentators favored – “The younger one will work hard”. I think that this one gives us the best insight into Jacob’s character and fate.
Jacob gets his name by grabbing on to Esau’s heel in the birth canal. The struggle in the womb is over. It was Jacob stirring up the trouble in there, but Esau wins. Jacob is born to an inferior status. In the book of Deuteronomy we learn that in ancient Israel the firstborn received double the inheritance of the other children. Jacob’s inferiority, being number 2, motivates him from womb to tomb to try harder.
Fast forward to the twins as teenagers – Esau, a big tough guy comes home from the hunt, “a man’s man”, cool and confident but hungry and tired. Jacob the Mama’s boy cooks and schemes his way ahead. He waits for the opportunity with this happy-go-lucky but not-too-sharp frat bro Esau, who just wants something to eat, but Jacob has something else in mind: “Sell me your birth right,” he demands, “and I’ll feed you”. Sure, Esau says, half- jokingly. “Swear it to me” says Jacob, and Esau swears.
Fast forward about 100 years to Egypt. As he prepares for the end, Jacob pleads with his son, “If I have found favor in your sight, don’t bury me in Egypt, take me to be buried with my fathers”. Joseph, ruler of Egypt, agrees. “Swear it to me” says Jacob, and Joseph swears. The same words exactly: Jacob is still inferior – only this time it is his own son, not his older brother, who is on top. The oath in both cases is his contract, the only assurance Jacob has that his wish will be honored.
Jacob is forever working overtime, having to take risks for everything he gets. He cheats his brother to get his father’s blessing, paying for his deceit with 20 years of hard labor under his uncle Lavan, then has to scheme to get his earnings, finally sneaking away with them. On the way home from Haran he struggles with an angel, forcing a blessing from him and overcoming in the process his fear and anxiety about what he perceives to be the impending fateful confrontation with his brother. Yet when it finally takes place, Esau doesn’t even seem to even remember that Jacob cheated him out of his blessing. Jacob’s angst means nothing to Esau. He’s just happy to see his long lost brother and to meet the family. No therapy for him! The lack of symmetry is startling.
In the famous opening line of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote that, “all happy families are the same, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Viewed from the outside, by the end of his life, Jacob was a success: revered patriarch of a large growing family with a son who rules a world superpower. But inside he was the same restless, insecure number 2, as he reflects on his life to Pharaoh: “The days of my life have been short and evil, and have not achieved the days of my fathers’”. He’s still competing, this time with the dead, and he’ll never be good enough. Jacob worked hard all his life for an elusive goal that was unobtainable from the beginning. Don’t we all feel that way sometimes!
But there is a way to change this mindset, and Jacob illustrates this also. The first time we meet Jacob, he is a called “ish tam”. I like to interpret this as meaning “a complete man”. When Jacob struggles with the angel, and overcomes the angel, he is finally ready and able to face his brother, and is given the name Israel. This is the challenge that still exists for us as Jews and for the Jewish nation as a collective. At that crucial time to step up – to stop being Jacob. To man up, to become an “ish tam”, a complete man, and to earn the name “Israel”.
Shavua tov from Schechter.