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Jacob: Heel or Hero?

  • Jacob: Heel or Hero?

    Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43
D'var Torah By: 


Then Jacob said, "O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Adonai, who said to me, 'Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you'! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, 'I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.'" (Genesis 32:10-13)


There is a rabbinic principle called z'chut avot, literally, "the merit of the fathers." This principle means that we, as descendants of the biblical heroes, may be rewarded or are entitled to petition God for some favor not only by virtue of what we ourselves may have done, but also by virtue of the merit of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others. It is not unlike someone applying to an Ivy League college who mentions that a parent and grandparent are alumni. It couldn't hurt!

This principle of z'chut avot is employed most obviously in Jewish liturgy, in the first blessing of the Amidah. The prayer begins, "We praise You, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors; God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob." (Egalitarian versions of the prayer add: "God of Sarah, God of Rebekah, God of Rachel, and God of Leah.") The rabbis who developed the liturgy many centuries ago felt that before we continue with the other blessings, prayers asking God for life and health, for well-being and peace, we should introduce ourselves, so to speak, and remind God that we are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each of whom God knew in a different way. If today, four thousand years later, we are benefiting because of the greatness of these biblical ancestors, then it should follow that they were indeed noble and blameless-true models for us to emulate.

If, however, we read the stories of Jacob carefully, we might reach a different conclusion. This is the man whose name means "heel." This is the man who tricked his brother into selling him the birthright, who disguised himself as Esau in order to deceive their blind father and receive the blessing of the firstborn. This is the Jacob who, after dreaming a revelatory dream of a stairway to heaven, makes a vow that seems more like a business proposition. He says, "If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house-Adonai shall be my God… and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You" (Genesis 28:20-22). There are so many "ifs" in that vow that it sounds more like a child addressing Santa Claus. Jacob's promise of exclusive worship and even monetary reward if God will provide protection, food, clothing, and a round-trip ticket is not unlike saying, "I'll be good and clean up my room if you give me a new bicycle."

But our parashah shows us that even a heel can grow up and learn from experience. The Jacob who addresses God in chapter 32 is a different man than the youth whom we previously met fleeing the wrath of his brother. In the intervening twenty years, he has married, fathered many children, worked very hard, and amassed a small fortune. He is about to confront his brother Esau, who threatened to kill him before they parted. He is afraid and he is humbled, and his prayer reflects his maturity and revised self-image. He begins by addressing God with an understanding of the principle of z'chut avot and continues with grateful acknowledgment that his wealth and good fortune are ultimately the result of God's kindness.

"In other words," writes Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1982), ". . . Jacob's prayer no longer tries to make a deal with God, nor does it present God with a long list of demands-food, clothing, prosperity, a safe return. It acknowledges that there is no currency in which God can be paid for blessing and helping us. Jacob's mature prayer says simply, 'God, I have no claims on You and nothing to offer You. You have already given me more than I had any right to expect. There is only one reason for my turning to You now-because I need You. I am scared; I have to face something hard tomorrow, and I am not sure I can do it alone, without You. God, You once gave me reason to believe that I was capable of making something of my life. If You meant it, then You had better help me now, because I can't handle this alone.'"

If Jacob is a role model for us to emulate, then it is this Jacob, the one who through his struggles "with beings divine and human" (Genesis 32:29) becomes Israel, from whom we can learn the most. This Jacob no longer swaggers, but limps. This Jacob is beginning to understand the nuances and challenges of family life, and though he will repeat his father's mistake of playing favorites with his children, this Jacob has taken on the responsibilities of being a parent and providing for his family. And this Jacob finally understands that, despite his wealth and prestige, without God's help, he is powerless.

We all have our good and bad moments, our times of infantile demands and our realization of our own limits. May the God of Jacob be with us as we seek to grow in wisdom, in understanding, and in faith.


  • "You have said, 'I will deal bountifully with you'" I will deal bountifully with you for your own sake [or, by your own merit]; and I will deal bountifully with you for the sake of [or, by the merit of] your ancestors. (B'reishit Rabbah 76:7)
  • Jacob's prayer, showing his humility and gratitude, is proof that misfortune had developed the nobler impulses of his heart. Twenty years of fixed principle, steadfast purpose, and resolute sacrifice of present for future, purify and ennoble. It proves that even from the first, though he may appear self-centered, Jacob is delicately sensitive to spiritual realities and capable of genuine reformation. (J. H. Hertz. ed., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs [Brooklyn, NY: Soncino Press, 1960], p. 122)


  1. How does the midrash in B'reishit Rabbah apply the principle of z'chut avot? How does that relate to the way Jacob addresses God in his prayer?
  2. The Hertz commentary wants us to see Jacob as a hero and explain away his past indiscretions. How do you see him? Does acknowledging that he is not perfect tarnish his image? Does that help or harm your ability to relate to him as a role model?

Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is the rabbi of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom, Homewood, Illinois.

Reference Materials: 

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 183–208