Dualities: Vayishlach Drash

By Fran Margulies

Jacob/Israel, one of our founding fathers, comes to us out of our mythic past. I say “mythic” because I think his story fits the dictionary definition of myth as “an ancient story of an ancestral hero who serves as a fundamental type in the world view of a people.” So how is his story fundamental to us? Well, for sure he is heroic, moving a giant boulder that blocks a well, falling passionately in love with a beautiful woman, wrestling an opponent during a night long battle. Was it a draw or a victory?

Image of a well in the middle of a path surrounded by greenery. The sea is visible from the end of the path.

Whatta guy!

But his story is more complicated, so let’s look further. I said “Whatta guy” because, at first, it seems the Jacob story is a masculine one, emphasizing physical strength, dominance, and courage. But as it develops, it does move inward and deeper and becomes about human nature. The first most striking thing about this story is all the doubling in it!

An image of a double shadow of a person against a sky full of clouds.

Everything happens in twos! It starts with twins struggling in Rebecca’s womb. It continues with two brothers of contrasting appearance, one hairy, the other smooth, one indoorsy, the other a hunter. Jacob has two wives, one beautiful, the other flawed, one very fertile, the other almost barren. Jacob himself is both impulsive and patient, falling in love at first sight, but then willing to work free for twenty long years to pay his bride prices.

In competition with Laban he divides his flocks in twos, strong and weak, speckled and dark. On his voyage home, he divides his belongings into two camps. Most striking, of course, is in his double name, both Jacob and Israel. And even more striking is the fact that the text continues to use both of his names even after he is renamed! At the end of his life, we see a cross-handed, DOUBLE blessing of his two grandsons, Ephraim and Menassah.

I note also that Esau’s anger and bitterness turn unexpectedly into the opposite, a generous and surprising welcome to his brother!

Jacob does have a strong sense of God’s providence throughout his story. Yet even that is opposed and doubted. He needs reassurance! On his journey from home, he bargains: “If you will protect me, God, I will worship you and build you an altar!” On his journey back home, even though now a big man, rich and successful, he still wheedles and bargains with God:  “Katonti!” “I am small – Please help me! Don’t forget – you promised!

Jacob runs away from danger at the beginning, then stands and faces it at the end; he has a nighttime struggle before fording the cross currents of Jabbok River as it joins the Jordan! His mysterious opponent is, we are told, both human and divine.

I propose that all of these oppositions are not only dramatic but they give energy and drive to the story. You need a positive and a negative to have an electric current. Jacob was a man who was both bad and good, who cheated and in turn was cheated.

So how then is this story fundamental to our religion, to us? How does Jacob tell our story? Well, opposites together make a whole. The struggle may be fierce but the whole continues, is stable. Think Yin and Yang, black and white shapes entwined within a single circle.

William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize speech that he needed to write about the “human heart in conflict with itself.” Well, this story and Judaism is indeed about that!  We have battled outside enemies through all of our history. We argue with each other all the time. And we have never been afraid of confronting our inner selves and the frightening mixture of motives we find. Underlying it all is a sense of a larger encompassing wholeness, a sense that somehow all of opposition fits into the single divinity which sustains it all.

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