This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Benzion N. Chinn
I recently started driving for the taxi service Uber. The logic behind this decision was that my main job as a tutor has me driving to different parts of Los Angeles. When I’m already on the road but with time to spare, it makes sense to pick up a passenger to help pay for the economic privilege of owning a car. In addition, the job is an education on the myriad of personalities one can find in a city like Los Angeles, and I can always hope that the passenger will want to go the same way I was going anyway.
Murphy’s Law comes into play, though – passengers often turn out to be going in the exact opposite direction. Sometimes I take on rider after rider, hoping they will “take” me where I want to go, only to find myself going further and further in the wrong direction.
Being on the wrong path and stubbornly holding on in hope that it will magically turn out to be the right path has given me renewed empathy for our Patriarch Jacob.
The story of Jacob, in marked contrast to those of Abraham and Isaac, seems an exercise in history gone wrong. With Abraham and Isaac, the divine narrative of history seems, with only a few minor hiccups, to be moving in the right direction. But where Abraham and Isaac separated their children and ultimately avoided fraternal violence, Jacob’s sons sell their brother Joseph. Avraham defeats the Four Kings, and Yitzchak reaches an accord with the Philistines, but Jacob feels compelled to disavow Simon and Levi’s devastation of Shekhem. While Avraham reaches Canaan, and Isaac never leaves, Jacob is first exiled to Aram and eventually goes down to Egypt, setting the stage for his family’s enslavement.
From this perspective, Jacob must be seen as the grand failure of the patriarchs. Geographically and eventually economically, Jacob lost everything that Abraham and Isaac worked so hard to gain. Jacob was the patriarch who missed the exit for Canaan, refused to ask for directions, and drove Jewish history into a ditch, from where it needed rescuing by Moses.
This dark view of Jacob, though, is countered by the fact that unlike Abraham and Isaac, all of Jacob’s sons are counted as part of Israel. In the end, Jacob did not produce an Ishmael or an Esau. For this reason, the Israelites are called after Jacob and not Abraham or Isaac.
This forces us to confront the possibility that perhaps, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, Jacob was going in the right direction the entire time. By leaving the land, was Jacob building a Jewish people? By contrast, were Simon and Levi destroying a potential part of Israel by massacring the inhabitants of Shekhem? Could it be that driving down a dirt road, a field and off a cliff really was a short-cut?
Our judgment of Jacob is relevant to our understanding of Jewish history, a story which is fundamentally one of history gone wrong. We could not keep a land or a temple. In exile we failed to hold on to either Spain or Eastern Europe. In looking at the wreckage of Jewish history, do we turn around and say that, in some mysterious sense, we did something right? By right I do not merely mean that Jewish history will end in a messianic redemption. To truly redeem Jewish history, we must say that the various tragedies of Jewish history, along with the cultural and leadership failures that could be attributed to the different generations, were either the products of some Jewish strength (even if they manifested themselves as tragic flaws) or led to something intrinsically positive about Judaism that could make it worthy of redemption.
Benzion N. Chinn spent several years at The Ohio State University following what he thought was the proper path for him, attempting to earn a doctorate in Jewish History. Following certain unfortunate career mishaps, he has taken his life in a new direction, working as an academic and special education tutor. He lives in Pasadena, CA with his wife and son.