Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
This week’s Parsha & Politics is based on a drasha given by IPA Deputy Director Howie Beigelman in November 2009 at Congregation Kesher Israel, in Harrisburg, PA, where he was scholar in residence. To learn more about IPA staff joining your community as guest lecturers, please email email@example.com.
What’s in a Name
Jacob is the first Diaspora Jew, the first to go into exile. Like many of his descendants, it’s not an exile of choice or comfort. Jacob flees for his life.
While it’s a pretty harrowing story, in the end, Jacob comes through it all right. There are times, if we hadn’t already seen the movie and know how it all ends, we’d be mighty worried. But we do know Jacob remains firm in his own allegiance to Torah and ensures the Jewish continuity of his children after him.
He is, in fact, the only forefather to not have a son reject the Jewish faith. More so, he’s the first major character in the Bible, from Adam to Noah to Abraham and Isaac, whose children each turn out all right. (Not that his family dynamic was simple, with a brother bent on his destruction, a father in law looking to kill him and a fight amongst his kids that ended up – on the positive note with just one of them being sold into slavery. But in the end, 12 sons, 12 committed – if quarrelsome – Jews.)
Yet, to extract the lesson for ourselves is hard. Jacob is a confusing, complicated figure. On the one hand he is the shtetl Jew. On the other, there’s more to Jacob than meets the eye. He is also the first Maccabee, a fighter who bests an angel in battle. He’s never looking for that fight, the gifts and prayers do come first, but if it’s a war Esau is looking for, he’s going to get one.
Jacob bridges dual personalities. On one side, Jacob, the scholar and saint and also, as the Angel would bless him, Israel, defender of his family and way of life.
Throughout the Bible, when the names are changed, they are permanent & irreversible. Abram became Abraham, Sarai, Sarah and Hoshea, Joshua. So too, the Angel declares: No more will you be called Jacob, now, you are Israel.
Except it ain’t so. In the Bible and on the long road of history, the Jewish people are Bais Yaakov, the House of Jacob as much as they are Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel.
That duality is the lesson of Jacob. Throughout the battles with Esau and the Angel, the deceit of Laban, Jacob maintains his innate Jewishness and at the same time fights Esau and Laban on their terms, handily beating them at their own games.
Why? How? Jacob had prepared for the world outside of the study hall and all its potential danger. When he fled his father’s house in panic, it was no blind panic; he’s a man with a plan. The Talmud relates Jacob detours before heading to Laban, to the greatest Torah scholars of the day where he studies for 14 years.
Jacob studied Torah from his father and from Abraham. But now, heading out to the house of Laban, the Bible’s example par excellance of cheating & thieving, Jacob knew in order to survive that world; remaining true to his Father’s house and to Father in Heaven, he needed to take the Torah and apply it to new realities as they unfolded around him.
(That lesson wasn’t lost on Jacob even decades later. When his entire family heads to Egypt for the exile, it is Jacob that sends Judah ahead to start the first Jewish Day School. The tribes were traveling together; Jacob was with them. Did they need to go ahead and lease an empty building? Yes, teaches Jacob. Egypt would be home to influences, worries and tests they’d never faced before. Education needed to be tailored for that generation and its challenges.)
The duality – even contradiction of Jacob & Israel is the lesson we must take from Jacob. Out in the wide world, at work, play, in university, on Wall Street or Main Street, we must be both Jacob and Israel. In the “real” world, we must act with and keep to Jewish values. But we must be ever ready that those values will translate into a brave, or not so brave, new world each day.
And most importantly, like Jacob & Judah, we must ensure that the next generation is ready too.
Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.