At the beginning of this week’s parsha, when Rebekah conceives, we are told that the children struggle inside of her. God tells her, “two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body” (Gen. 25:23). From the very first time that the Torah mentions Jacob and Esau, their relationship is characterized by unrelenting feud. More complex than the dynamic between Cain and Abel—which ends tragically but is marked by a sense of naïveté—the sibling rivalry between Isaac and Rebekah’s twins ropes the whole family, and indeed two nations worth of descendants, into a morally challenging drama.
The conflict is framed by Rebekah’s prophecy that Jacob will ultimately be stronger than Esau, and by her sense that he should be the one to continue the covenant of Abraham and Sarah. Jacob’s very name (Ya’akov in Hebrew) derives from how he was born clutching the heel (ekev) of his firstborn brother, and the hostilities ensue accordingly. As the boys grow older, their father Isaac comes to favor Esau, while their mother Rebekah favors Jacob. The plot begins to thicken when in a fit of appetite Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. The narrative holds Esau in contempt for accepting the deal, but it is Jacob, we notice, who is all too quick to propose it in the first place. The climax of this section in the Torah comes when Jacob, under the direction of his mother, dresses up as his brother, tells his blind father that he is Esau, and receives from Isaac the blessing presumably meant for the firstborn.
This family debacle raises many questions. While Esau is portrayed as an unworthy, brutish oaf, and Isaac is characterized as too out of touch to distinguish between his sons, it is very difficult to read this story without feeling that Rebekah and Jacob have done wrong. Even before the Ten Commandments, lying looks bad. Even if we prefer Jacob to the unsavory Esau, and even if we know that Jacob will be given the name Israel and become the decisive patriarch of the Jewish people, the sense of active manipulation and deception overrides any tolerance that we may have for the idea that the ends justify the means.
So what are we to make of this series of events? Must we simply accept that Rebekah and Jacob did what they had to do to carry out God’s plan for continuing the covenant? Are Isaac and Esau such pathetic stakeholders to the family legacy that the monotheistic project must be founded on some kind of noble lie? Is this the Hebrew Bible’s notion of justice? If we take a broader, longer-term perspective on Jacob’s life, we see that the Torah’s short answer is No. Jacob’s ascendance as heir to the Abrahamic legacy is not properly understood as an outgrowth of his deceiving his father and cheating his brother.
Although Jacob ends up with success in his life, his actions in Parshat Toldot are not necessarily rewarded along the way. He comes out of our parsha blessed, but the immediate effect of his actions is that he must go into exile to escape Esau’s wrath. Then, after seven years working for his uncle Laban in order to marry Rachel, Jacob himself becomes the victim of deceit, as he is tricked into marrying Leah. He eventually marries Rachel as well, but the whole situation costs him another thirteen years of labor. In his old age Jacob’s own sons lie to him—just as he lied to his father Isaac—telling him that their brother Joseph has been killed, when in fact they have sold Joseph into slavery.
By the end of his life, Jacob will have paid a heavy price for what he does in our parsha. And although he becomes a great patriarch and the nation’s namesake, Israel, we are not left feeling that his success in continuing the covenant was built on necessary evils, but rather, on the contrary, that his sins in Parshat Toldot were quite unnecessary. Esau may have been unfit in many ways to carry the torch of Abraham and Sarah. And Rebekah may have had good, prophecy-inspired intentions in ensuring that Jacob received Isaac’s top blessing rather than Esau. But the Torah seems to suggest that Jacob was always meant to supersede his brother and proceed to greatness, so the transgressions are gratuitous.
It is not worth conjecturing on how the story may have unfolded differently if Jacob had not acted immorally in our parsha, but in order to derive lessons about the relationship between morality and creativity here, it is important to consider how the conflict between Jacob and Esau begins independent of the family feud that it precipitates. Given where the story takes us, it is easy to forget that the tension between the two brothers does not necessarily originate in their parents’ competing favoritisms. While we certainly see how Isaac and Rebekah’s respective preferences between their twin sons contribute to the tension, the Torah also demonstrates how the unfolding drama between Jacob and Esau is fundamentally God-given in its origin. Something deep inside of them—beyond even the fact that they are brothers—seems to account for the friction between them. And that something leads us directly to this week’s commentary on the relationship between morality and creativity in the Torah.
Apart from the strained relationships and the telling interactions that we see in our parsha, Jacob and Esau are explicitly characterized by one fundamental difference: when the two grow up, Esau is described as a skilled hunter and man of the field, while Jacob, we are told, dwells in tents and is labeled with one word, tam. Various translations conflict about how to understand the word tam, and many define it simply as “simple.” In translations that consider other occurrences of the word throughout the Torah, it appears to refer to a level of refined inner maturity. Some understand from the text that Jacob has a mild nature, in contrast to Esau’s severity. Others see Jacob as a serious and scholarly figure, compared to the industrious, hands-on Esau. But for our purposes let’s consider a more subtle idea—that Jacob must be understood first and foremost as a quiet man.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain identifies a classic juxtaposition between introversion and extroversion in the divergent descriptions of Jacob and Esau, and their consequent sibling rivalry. She sees Jacob as “quiet” and “cerebral,” in contrast to “the swashbuckling Esau.” What does this have to do with the relationship between creativity and morality? While Cain certainly acknowledges the value of creative collaboration—in the covenantal bonds of family as much as in urban life and business innovation—she focuses on the broader idea that our society prioritizes collaboration over solitude, even as research shows that independence and introversion can be key catalysts for creativity—and even morality.
These findings definitely do not suggest that introverts are always more creative or moral than extroverts, but they do point our attention to the creative and moral value of cultivating a deep inner life. No matter how we understand Jacob’s tam label, when Cain tells us that Steve Wozniak, the engineer behind the first Apple computers, claims that his inventions were made possible in large part by the fact that he was too shy to leave the house, we cannot help but be reminded of the young Jacob sitting quietly in his tent. Parshat Lech Lecha introduced us to the idea of self-creation as a virtue, so how does Jacob’s introversion in Parshat Toldot build on the Torah’s teachings about the role of solitude and internal development in the relationship between creativity and morality? How does understanding the key difference between Jacob and Esau as a matter of introversion versus extroversion help us learn moral lessons from the lies and deceit in our parsha?
The irony, which helps us begin to answer these questions, is that while Jacob may be characterized as an introvert, he does not show himself to be very introspective. The text tells us that he is afraid of being seen by his father as a trickster, but he does not question the fraudulent scheme itself. He may be embarrassed about being sent away from home, but we do not see any signs that he feels remorse for his deeds. Despite his description as inwardly focused and tam, he becomes in our parsha a paragon of external illusions—a man who wears his brother’s clothes to fool his blind father, and thus personifies a dark and duplicitous form of discrepancy between appearance and reality.
Jacob’s deceitful actions and lack of maturity point us to a core lesson about the relationship between creativity and morality. Just as his father’s blessing tells Jacob that the best for him is yet to come, our parsha throws into sharp relief that he is full of potential that is decidedly unrealized. Despite his introverted inclinations, he has yet to reap the true fruits of solitude. It is only in exile that he begins to experience the introspection that will force him to face and conquer his inner flaws and demons, and ultimately find moral and creative power in his introversion.
As we see in the chapters of the Torah immediately following our parsha, once Jacob leaves his parents’ household to escape his brother’s violent rage, he is alone for the first time, afforded the privacy that he has perhaps always craved but never fully enjoyed. When the seven years that he works to marry Rachel pass like a few days in his eyes because of his love for her, we see Jacob finally in flow—completely absorbed in an activity that takes him beyond himself. He will find God in his dreams, and wrestle with God in his deepest moments of fear and self-doubt. He will be reminded of—and held to account for—the mistakes in his past and the fractures in his relationships. He will continue to transgress and learn, and will even draw closer to his brother as a sort of practical man of the field, through twenty years of pastoral labor. Five chapters after being described as tam, Jacob earns the label shalem, indicating deeper and truer spiritual wholeness, inner peace, maturity, and integrity (Gen. 33:18).
More than perhaps anyone else in the Torah, Jacob represents how creative and moral capacities require disciplined development in order to reach their highest potential. In his early life, Jacob’s considerable creative and moral sensibilities are twisted into genius for cunning. He despises and takes advantage of his brother and father, and comes to see the moral and creative cost of deceit—its erosion of trust and bonds of mutual interest—when the same sins are visited upon him. Ultimately, Jacob’s strivings in matters divine and human earn him a new name, Israel, which helps him transcend the family drama of his childhood, and which will become the title of a nation engaged in a constant struggle for spiritual and temporal improvement. Jacob comes to personify the deepest challenges of living a moral and creative life with integrity. But between the quiet tent of his youth and the majestic encampments of his descendants, he must cultivate a more mature sense of his moral and creative capabilities. He must learn to transform self-absorption and self-interest into self-reflection and self-creation—by informing his deep sense of introversion with true introspection.
 Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, (New York: Crown, 2012), Kindle ed., Loc. 4885.