To the familiar "How odd of God to choose the Jews" we might well add, upon reading the story of Jacob/Israel, "But stranger still is Israel/It's odd indeed to be his seed/Part cheat, part mouse, yet we're his house/How come we're known as Jacob's own?"
The text of Vayishlach is unbearably dense, and to the degree to which we learn still more of Jacob's character in the course of reading it, our earlier opinion of him is confirmed. Through much of his story, he appears remarkably passive. Note especially his response to the rape of Dinah where he demonstrates none of the outrage of Dinah's brothers, his sons. When he finally raises his voice, it is not against the murder and plunder his sons have committed but against the damage their actions have done to his reputation. This last is yet another indication of his profound self-involvement and his insensitivity to the others in his family: his placement of Leah and her children in the more vulnerable position as the meeting with Esau draws near; his consistent rejection of Leah in earlier sections of the story; and, of course and most powerfully, his cheating of Esau with respect to the birthright.
More generally, the Jacob story is about a man who repeatedly suffers insult, injury, and tragedy and whose suffering is in no small measure a consequence of his own behavior. Turn the pages, and over and over again, we find Jacob in a compromising position, father of a manifestly dysfunctional family. And how could it not be, given his exploitation of Esau, his dishonesty towards his father, his meanness towards Leah, and his later blatant favoritism towards Joseph?
All of which raises at least two difficult questions: Why was he chosen for the blessing; why is his name attached to us all, his descendants? And then, how can a man blessed by God - perhaps even in person, as it were - be so cursed? Happiness and contentment were never part of the blessing. On the contrary, the blessing is highly specific, having to do only with Jacob's status as progenitor. It is, in a manner of speaking, a biological blessing to be fulfilled in the course of time, well beyond the span of Jacob's years.
Perhaps, after all, it is the fate of anyone who is father to "a nation and a company of nations" to be troubled.
Or, perhaps, we are meant to understand not only that our early ancestors were real, hence imperfect, people but also that our story is one of growing moral discernment, that it is only later, at the base of a mountain in a wilderness, that we will begin to understand the intended connection between our behavior and our reward.
A final question: How is it that Jacob, who is twice told that his name has been changed to "Israel," continues to be remembered in our liturgy by his former name?
If now you're vexed, please read the text.
Leonard Fein is the past Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.