Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yetze 5768/ November 17, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Making The Crooked Straight


Dr. Amos Bar-da


Department of Life Sciences



The life of Jacob, father of the nation, fills the entire second half of the book of Genesis; seven of the twelve weekly readings in this book sequentially describe his accomplishments during the 147 years of his life, from the day of his conception and that of his birth, in Parashat Toledot, through the day of his death, in Parashat Va-Yehi. This extensive account stands in contrast to the accounts of the lives of his predecessors, Abraham and Isaac, from which Scripture presents only selected passages.

Jacob—the First Biography

The drama of the life of Abraham, the great believer, begins in Parashat Lekh Lekha, when he was seventy-five years old, and covers the next three weekly readings, until his death at age 175, noted at the end of Parashat Hayyei Sarah.  What happened in the first 75 years of his life remains shrouded in mystery and is not spelled out by Scripture, and only selected chapters of the remaining hundred years of his life are set before us.   The descriptions of Isaac’s life are even shorter than those of Abraham’s and only a few chapters of his long life are told us.  Of the 180 years that he lived, mention is made only of a few select events that took place during his first hundred years:  his birth and the story of the binding of Isaac, which have to do with the history of Abraham’s life, his resettling in Gerar and events that have to do with the lives of his sons, Jacob and Esau.  As we mentioned, the second half of Genesis is devoted entirely to the biography of the father of nation – Jacob, otherwise known as Israel – possibly the earliest known biography.  Thus, the history of Jacob’s life comprises the bulk of the book of Genesis.

When he was born, Jacob seized hold of Esau’s heel (Heb. ’akev), hence his name Ya’akov.  Semantically, the word ‘akev’ ‘heel’ comes from the depression that the heel creates when a footprint is made in the ground.  The work means a concavity or hollow, as in Isaiah (40:4):   “Let the rugged ground (akov) become level and the ridges become a plain.”  The original meaning of the root ’-k-v refers to tangible, physical things:  the depression in the ground and the bone in the foot.  The root then evolved more abstractly in two directions:   1) in the sense of following sequentially, one thing on the heel of another; 2) in the sense of being distorted, crooked, circuitous and devious.   Indeed, from the point of view of Esau, Jacob’s name is derived not from ‘heel’ but from ‘devious plotting’: [1]   “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me (’-k-v) these two times?   First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!” (Gen. 27:36).  

Grabbing Esau’s heel in birth and giving the name Ya’akov denotes the beginning of a cycle of hostility between Jacob and his brother Esau.  This cycle concludes with a formative event in the history of Jacob’s life, the episode in which Esau’s angel wrenches Jacob’s hip and gives him the name Israel. [2]   The transition from Esau’s heel to Jacob’s thigh and the transition from Esau’s view of Jacob as a devious, crooked person, to the view of Jacob as Israel (in Hebrew, Israel contains the root y-š-r, ‘straight’) in a sense represents the idea in Isaiah (40:4) that the “crooked shall become straight,” characteristic of Jacob’s life.

Jacob Between Heaven and Earth

Jacob oscillates between two extremes:   between perfect faith and earthly existence.  He is a “mild man who stays in camp” (Gen. 25:27); that is to say, his spiritual perfection demands honesty, humility, and self-denial.  On the other hand, it is decreed that he contend with a social reality which is not in the realm of faith.  He is a disciple of his grandfather Abraham, of whom it is said in Pirkei Avot, “Whoever has these three things is a disciple of our patriarch Abraham: a contented outlook, a lowly mind and a humble spirit” (Avot 5:19).   Jacob’s primary mission is to exercise these traits in the face of reality, in daily practice which includes establishing an extensive family, working, and coping with a life that is not consonant with his primal characteristics. 

Jacob sets out from the land of Israel to go abroad, from Hebron to Beersheba, and from there to Haran, the place that his grandfather Abraham had been commanded to leave by the divine order, “Go forth.”  Abraham had left a home, homeland, and civilization that had shaped his personal identity for 75 years, replacing it with a new identity according to the faith that he founded.  Jacob went in the opposite direction, going back to the former land of his grandfather with the new personality that had been shaped by Abraham and Isaac.   The purpose for Jacob’s trip was physical – to build a family, establish a household and work in the normal way of the world – “Man then goes out to his work, to his labor until the evening” (Ps. 104:23) – whereas the inner purpose of his departure there was to shape the Jewish faith and nation in actual life, applying the Torah in the mundane world. 

An Earthly Torah

At Bethel he beholds a ladder in his dreams, symbolizing the meaning of his life and the ideal of the nation he will later found – to connect two extremes, heaven and earth, with the Torah growing out of the earth: [3]   “And angels of G-d were going up and down on it” (Gen. 28:12); first ascending, even though their natural place was in the heavens from whence they had to first descend. These angels represent the actions of Jacob and the children who came after him, bringing the Torah forth from the earth. Therefore the blessing he received from G-d was, “your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 28:14) and not “as the stars of the heavens;” unlike Abraham’s blessing, it was Jacob’s way to take the Torah out of the earth and put into practice the divine image of G-d in man, which is in the dust from which he was created.

From Jacob to Israel

The life of the father of the nation fluctuates along the scale from Jacob to Israel; between the earthly and the divine.  He builds a family in the devious environs of Laban, and finds that he must apply his straightness from within a crooked world, in the twists and turns of life:  the affair of the birthright and blessing, his marriage to Leah, Rachel’s barrenness, the affair with Laban’s flocks, the affair of the idols, hostility and reconciliation with Esau, Rachel’s death, the incident with Dinah and Shechem son of Hamor, the sale of Joseph, the affair of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, the famine in the land, and the throes he experiences as Joseph plays provocateur with his brothers until they finally all descend to Egypt.

Thus Jacob and Israel, ostensibly one thing and its opposite, are actually none other than a single Truth, as it is said:   “You will keep faith (emet= truth) with Jacob, loyalty to Abraham” (Micah 7:20).   Abraham is the man of faith and loyalty, Isaac symbolizes worship and sacrifice, as suggested by the epithet, “the fear of Isaac,” whereas Jacob is the man of Truth, symbolizing the Torah arising from the earth, as in the expression “Truth springs up from the earth” (Ps. 85:12), and being implemented in life as it is in actual practice. [4]

The patriarch Jacob breathed his last and was gathered to his people, as Rashi writes (49:33):  “He breathed his last and was gathered – it does not say that he died, and the Sages have said that our patriarch Jacob did not die.”   This is a hint that Jacob, father of the nation, is us; his life was representative of the life of every Jew and of the life of the entire nation, with its trials and tribulations here and now, and representative of the great ideal of a nation that brings the Torah forth from the earth.  As the prophet Malachi said:

 A pronouncement:  The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi.  I have shown you love, said the Lord.  But you ask, ‘How have You shown us love?’  After all – declares the Lord – Esau is Jacob’s brother; yet I have accepted Jacob and have rejected Esau (Malachi 1:1-2). 

Even though Jacob and Esau were equal in their relationship, Esau represents earthliness, and Jacob, the Torah coming forth from the earth, and in this the Lord’s love of Israel is manifest.


[1] Likewise, “Jehu was acting with guile (be-okbah) in order to exterminate the worshippers of Baal” (II Kings 10-19).   Rashi:   Be-okbah = be-mirmah, with deceit,” and similarly, “For every brother takes advantage (akov ya’akov) and every friend is base in his dealings” (Jer. 9:3).   Metzudat David interprets:   Akov ya’akov – makes crooked and distorted”; Rashi, “Akov ya’akov – lies in wait, and many other interpretations along this line.”

[2] Jacob’s hip being wrenched might also signify making a covenant between Esau’s angel and Jacob by the angel placing his hand under Jacob’s thigh.   In the wake of this covenant comes the blessing and change of name.  Similarly, when Eliezer swore to Abraham he put his hand beneath Abraham’s thigh, and likewise with Joseph, who put his hand under Jacob’s thigh when the latter made him swear not to bury him in Egypt.

[3] Midrash Lekah Tov on Genesis (28:12) draw a parallel between Jacob’s ladder and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai:  “Here we have a stairway set on the ground, whereas in Ex. 19:17 we have they took their places at the foot of the mountain [both phrases use the same verb, y-tz-b, in Hebrew];   here, and its top reached the sky, and in Deut. 4:11, the mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies; here, going up and down on it, as opposed to Ex. 19:3, and Moses went up to G-d and (Ex. 19:20), the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai.   Thus we see that the ladder alludes to the Torah which is to be applied on earth, and is also the symbol of Jacob as the man of the Teaching of Truth.  The Hebrew word for Truth (Emet) also symbolizes the connection of two extremes to a single experience insofar as it joins the two ends of the alphabet – beginning with the letter aleph (standing for eretz, = earth) and ending with the letter taf (standing for Torah), and with the letter mem, the middle letter of the alphabet, in the middle; thus Emet comprises the great idea of Jacob and Israel as symbolized by Jacob’s ladder.

[4] “The world rests on three things, on the Torah – Jacob, on worship – Isaac, and on good deeds – Abraham” (Avot 1.2).