Rabbi Sandra Kviat
“They mess you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were messed up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.”
― Philip Larkin1
“They mess you up, your mum and dad” pretty much sums up the stories of Genesis. Abraham favoured Isaac over Ishmael, Isaac then preferred Esau over Jacob, and Jacob will openly favour his youngest child Joseph to the chagrin of all his older siblings. Genesis is a lesson in how NOT to parent. And so the dysfunctionality continues down the generations until it seems to end with the complex character of Joseph and his two sons.
In the parasha today we meet the supposed golden boy, one of the three patriarchs, the grandson of Abraham who creates a vast fortune in sheep, and returns with four wifes and more children than most can remember. Jacob is the apple of his mother’s eye and the successor to the blessings given by God to Abraham.
And yet, is Jacob a character to emulate, to look up to? He showed no kindness to his starving brother but twice negotiated/forced his desperate brother to give up something valuable before sharing his food with him. The traditional commentaries focus their contempt on Esau for so willingly giving up his birthright on an impulse. But what about looking at the ethics of Jacob who showed no compassion for his twin?
Jacob had everything to gain in getting his brother to hand over the birthright (the bechorah). The firstborn son inherited both the leadership of the family and the legal authority of the father, as well as twice the material inheritance (Deuteronomy 21.17). The birthright was no small thing. And yet, as soon as Jacob had deceived his own father into giving him the final blessing, he had to flee for his life. Jacob is not the biblical posterboy for ethical living. But then again, neither are his father, grandfather or his own son Joseph. Or any of the biblical characters for that matter. What we see in the Torah is not a gallery of saints, or blameless characters. It can at times rather feel like an ongoing soap, like an episode of EastEnders or Coronation Street just with long beards and shepherd’s staffs, rather than leather jackets and bling. But the temper tantrums, the scheming, and the backstabbing is just the same.
I have to admit that I have only come to soaps lately, and the only one I can watch with interest is Casualty. And though there is much silliness, easily foreseeable plot twists, and unrealistic situations (accidents always come in twos in Casualty) nevertheless there is something utterly appealing about soaps.
It has something to do with their imperfection, with blood and guts, their failures and misery. Though it is highly unlikely anyone would ever suffer the fate of a soap character, nevertheless we feel their pain, frustration and confusion, and we can recognise some of it. And we empathise with the lack of perfection, for that is real life too. And that I think is the strength of the biblical characters. They are not saints, neither Jacob, Esau, Laban the uncle or the two sisters Rachel and Leah, none of them are portrayed in a misty eyed light. The quarrel, they cheat, they cry out in their loneliness and misery, they make up warily, and they constantly leave us wondering. But their weaknesses are also their strengths, and what makes their stories endure. For we have all been a Jacob, cheating, lying, using half truths to get our way. We have suffered like Leah, felt her insecurity, while we stood in the shadows of others. We have laughed at others’ expense like Sarah, we have caused anguish because we were worried. Like Leah we have turned to desperate measures to reach our dreams. Like them we are imperfect, bound in a daily grind of joy and misery, stuck somewhere between heaven and earth.
When Jacob wakes up from his dream of a connection between the two, is he a changed man? Is he leaving behind his imperfections, his flaws and starting afresh? The perfectionist in me hopes for this, looks for clues in the text. And yet, as one of my favourite writers, the former Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman points out, dreaming of a fresh start is a fallacy, and part of a form of perfectionism, which sets impossible goals that can never be attained.
“The self you’re seeking to transform is the same one that’s doing the transforming – so you’re like Baron Munchausen, trying to pull himself out of the swamp by yanking on his own hair. You can never start life afresh, because you’re hopelessly stuck in this life; there’s no breaking through to another one in which everything’s different and better.
The reason this is so liberating, for anyone with even a hint of perfectionism, is that it means you get to give up on the exhausting struggle to take charge of your life, so as to steer it in a new direction. You get to abandon all hope of one day finding the perfect time management system – or perfect relationship, job, neighborhood, etcetera – and relax back into the inescapable chaos and muddle of the one you have.
And then – once you’re facing your real situation, not fixating on a fantasy alternative – you suddenly find yourself able to start making a few concrete improvements, here and now, unburdened by any need for those improvements to usher in a golden age of perfection. This, in my experience, is the only way personal change ever really happens: by first seeing that it’s always a matter of rebuilding the ship mid-ocean, making adjustments to a life you can’t ever take back to port or trade for another”2.
Jacob does not wake up to a new start, a perfect new beginning, freed of his old mistakes and desires. He does wake up with a different awareness, which slowly changes his character, though the wily behaviour of Jacob continues into his old age. But that is the point, Jacob is not perfect, he does not attain a perfect start or complete change, and neither will we. Instead we are reminded that real personal change happens slowly, with small goals and gradual progress.
The biblical gallery of imperfect characters reminds us that they are not perfect, and neither are we. And in their weakness, in their imperfections, also lies theirs and our strength.
1Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse” from Collected Poems. This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin
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