The story of Jacob begins literally in his mother’s womb, as we read in Parshat Toldot. Rebecca has twins growing inside her, and the Torah deploys the colorful word vayitrotzatzu to describe their embrionic activity–a word that connotes running, racing, struggling, the work of governing competing emotions and desires.

It has always struck me as significant that Jacob and Esau are twins. The way in which the Torah sets them up as a complementary (or diametrically opposed) pair, almost has a Fight Club – quality to it. These brothers could be, and in some mystical ways are, the same person.

This image receives its greatest treatment in two places. The latter is Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, which we will read in two weeks during parshat Vayishlach. The first is from this week’s Torah portion, when Jacob dons the garb of his twin brother to fool his father into giving him his blessing. “Hakol kol Yaakov, v’hayadaim yedei Esav,” “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Gen. 27:22) In the text itself, we sense the conflict within Jacob as he undertakes this mission. In verse 12 he openly asks his mother, What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him, and bring a curse upon myself rather than a blessing. His mother reassures him, and he does her bidding. But the midrash adds on v. 14 that when he went to fetch the food and the skins to perform his deception, he did so with tears in his eyes.

Jacob is deeply conflicted about what he is doing. In this he is the best example of an emerging adult in the Torah–without question the most fleshed out character we have going through this stage of his life. This is the difficult and unavoidable work of determining his calling, of defining who he will be. I have written elsewhere about how the Torah helps us reflect on this stage of life, of the search for authenticity, and the sometimes violent nature such a struggle can take. Again I invoke the work of Lionel Trilling, who points out “the violent meanings which are explicity in the Greek ancestry of the word ‘authentic.’ Authenteo: To have full power over; also, to commit a murder. Authentes: not only a master and a doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self-murderer, a suicide.”

Jacob is fully aware of the manipulation–the abuse?–inherent within his actions. That is why he cries. That is why he hesitates. The Torah certainly does not want us to overlook these aspects of his behavior; if anything, it amplifies them for us to hear and learn from. The questions this episode raises are ones that are timeless, that continue to reverberate in our individual and communal lives: What does it mean to be who we come to know we are meant to be? What is the price of that life? Are we willing to pay it? These will be the haunting questions of Jacob, of Israel, during these weeks when we read his life and for the millennia that follow.

Shabbat shalom.

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