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Jacob is the patriarch identified with night
December 4th, 2008
Why is father Jacob the “most chosen of the patriarchs,” the most worthy of emulation from among the paragons and path-breakers of our faith?
According to Jewish tradition, Abraham was the one who discovered the G-d of justice and compassion, and Isaac walked the walk of self-sacrifice and commitment unto death for the sake of heaven. So why do the sages of the Talmud give their highest accolade to Jacob?
I believe the beginning of our analysis can be found in another teaching in the Talmud: “Our patriarchs initiated the daily prayers: Abraham enacted the morning prayer [Shaharit], Isaac the afternoon prayer [Minhah], and Jacob the evening prayer [Arvit]” (Talmud Tractate Berakhot 28b).
I suggest that each of these prayers and the time when they are to be recited encapsulate the essence of each of their founders.
Abraham symbolizes the dawn, the beginning of a new era and the optimism of a rising sun. Abraham’s success in winning so many adherents to his new faith as well as his financial accomplishments and military prowess make for an optimistic personality whose faith in G-d has enabled him to believe in himself and in his future.
Isaac is a pensive, withdrawn and peacefully passive stalwart. He submits to Avimelekh’s deceit silently, courageously accompanies his father to his binding on the altar and is bonded to the land of Israel with profound love and commitment. His personality is more akin to the stillness of the twilight.
Without and within
Jacob is the patriarch of the night. Indeed, his many adventures — from the time he leaves his father’s house in Israel to his successful encounter with an anonymous assailant some two decades later on his way back home — are portrayed as having taken place in the span of a night.
Jacob’s dream as he sets forth into exile comes to him as he “confronted the place and spent the night there since the sun had set” (Genesis 28:11). And after he successfully wrestles with a “man” all night until the rising of the morning star, the Bible testifies, “the sun rose for him when he passed Penuel” (Genesis 32:32).
What is the symbolism of night? Night is a black, bleak awesome and frightening period of the day; it is a time of unseen obstacles, fearful nightmares — and it is therefore identified with tragedy and exile.
From this perspective, Jacob is the patriarch of night. He was hounded by Esau, deceived by Laban, bereft of a beloved wife and favored son for much of his adult life, and forced to spend many of his years, including his last ones, in exile from his homeland.
Night is also the dark and frightening aspect of one’s personality; the id, or the evil instinct, the difficult and often uncontrolled “negative side” that lurks in the heart of every individual ready to overtake one’s being.
In this respect as well, Jacob had to confront the Esau within himself, the part of him different from the “whole-hearted person who dwelt in tents of study,” the deceiving schemer who yearned for the birthright, the blessings and patriarchal acceptance at any and all cost.
Jacob confronted the night without and within, the objective challenges and tragedies that exemplify an unredeemed world, and the subjective temptations and seductions that characterize an unredeemed soul — or rather of a soul-in-progress.
Jacob overcame the obstacles. The Almighty Himself testifies to this by bestowing upon him a new name, Yisrael, “because you have fought with powers and with individuals, and you have overcome” (Genesis 32:29).
Jacob rises, falls and rises again, as do the ascending and descending angels in his initial dream at Bet-El, but he eventually succeeds in emerging triumphant and whole.
Jacob-Israel never sought a charmed life of consistent righteousness in which he would be carried to continual success by a constantly beneficent G-d. His was rather a life of confrontation, conflict and struggle.
He is the chosen of the patriarchs because it is ultimately his prayer — and his triumph — which must serve as the model for us all:
“Dear G-d, I do not ask that You make my life easy; I only ask that You help me to be strong and to overcome.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of the community of Efrat.