A couple of weeks ago I attend a retreat on an island in Washington State. The retreat–the fancy word was ‘consultation’–brought together a diverse group of eighteen people from various sectors of society, including religion, business, education, and community activism, for four days of pondering the story of twentysomethings in America today. I was the only Jew there. There was one Muslim, a couple of earth-religion type people, and the rest were Christians.

As part of the consultation I led a text study on the story of Jacob that we find in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei. When he leaves home, Jacob is a teenager. The story we read this week details the next two decades of Jacob’s life–the formative period that we in the business call young, or emerging, adulthood.

It came as a bit of a surprise to my new Christian friends to find out that, in Judaism, Jacob is associated with the virtue of emet, Truth. Jacob is of course a trickster, and in last week’s Torah portion we saw how he manipulated his father in order to cheat his brother Esau out of the blessing that was meant for him. We also see this week that Jacob tricks Laban in order to make out with the best possible livestock. So there’s no question that Jacob is tricky. Why then is he associated with Truth?

In the Jewish mystical tradition, Abraham is associated with the virtue of lovingkindess, or Hesed; Isaac is associated with strength, or Gevura. These two virtues exist in a dialectical relationship: Lovingkindess always wants to overflow, to break through boundaries, while strength involves retreating and erecting walls. Abraham’s tent is always open, and he constantly demonstrates is great love for all of humanity. Isaac, the only one of the three patriarchs who never leaves the land of Canaan, is more guarded and protective. 

Jacob is understood to be the reconciler of these two traits, alternatively associated with the word Tiferet, splendor, or Emet, truth. Like his father Isaac, Jacob is born in the land of Canaan, but like his grandfather Abraham he leaves home to sojourn in a foreign place. Jacob is capable of intense love, as in his love for his wife Rachel, but he also practices realpolitik in order to protect his family. Jacob is a creature of the night, a time we would not normally associate with truth. But the nighttime is when we are not corrupted by our sense of sight, and instead must rely on our other senses to ascertain reality. In Jacob’s case, this leads to a deep sensation of the presence of God on his initial journey, and a name-changing night-time wrestling encounter upon his return home. 

Perhaps the message here is that truth is at once more complicated and simpler than we think. In our historicized, scientized world, we often think of truth as only that which we can see, that which we can measure. But Jacob reminds us that we have other means of knowing, other avenues we must travel on the path to truth.

Shabbat shalom.

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