We are told very little about Jacob’s character in his early days. Until his teenage years, one of the few pieces of information the Torah gives about Jacob is that he was a “Dweller of tents,” – ‘Yoshev Ohalim.’ This description seems to fall short of a full character overview, however, Torah commentaries have been able to glean a bigger picture, by asking the questions, ‘What kinds of tents’, and ‘Why tents in the plural?’
Rabbi Menahem Recanati (1223-1290, Italy), asserts that these two tents refer to the tents of Jacob’s father, Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. This would surely seem like the only credible answer wouldn’t it? If your father and grandfather were Abraham and Isaac, wouldn’t that suffice as a good enough Jewish education?
Surprisingly, it is not the answer Rashi gives, who quotes the midrash that these ‘tents’ were the schools of Shem and Eber, Noah’s son and great-grandson, who had inherited the original wisdom of Adam the first man, and yes were still alive. (Eber died when Jacob was around 80) I can understand that Shem and Eber were great teachers, but surely it is still a question. How could it be that Jacob, would not be spending every valuable second learning from his grandfather- the father of the Jewish People? After all, Abraham died when Jacob was just past bar mitzvah age, why wasn’t he trying to glean every word from him, every teaching? The Maharal is confused by another question entirely and asks, according to the answer that Rashi brings, how can it be that Jacob learned with both Shem and Eber, Shem was that much greater than Eber, after all he was Noah’s son, he was actually on the Ark. How could Jacob have had the audacity to get up and leave Shem’s tent to learn from Eber?’ – We’ll return to this question.
In trying to find a satisfying answer to my question about who Jacob’s teachers were, the Radak, (Rabbi David Kimhe, Provence 1160- 1265) offers a broader perspective. The reference to many tents, he says, teaches that Jacob sought to learn as much as he could from whoever he could – without being at all judgmental. In essence an embodiment of the Jewish maxim “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.” This was illuminating, especially since we can see the same trait clearly in Abraham’s character as well.
Abraham embodied this idea of learning from others. In Parashat Lech Lecha, we find him searching for answers to his philosophical questions about the world, and then making a pilgrimage to honour and greet Malchi Tzedek, the King of Shalem (Jerusalem) in the land of Canaan, who Rashi tells us, is actually Shem. Abraham gave him tithes, having trekked thousands of miles to be closer to him to learn from him. In parashat Vayera, we meet Abraham receiving prophecy, while sitting outside his tent in the land of Mamre after having performed the mitzvah of brit milah. Mamre was not a place name, but as Rashi states, the name of one of his trusted friends, on who’s land G-d had appeared to Abraham, as a reward for advice about the brit milah which Mamre had given to him. Abraham hadn’t known whether to perform this command publicly to teach others, or in private. Mamre’s advice was to teach God’s word publicly even this very personal mitzvah. Stemming from this piece of advice, Jewish practice is to perform a brit milah in a public gathering and celebration. Abraham, the first Jew, the father of the Jewish People was modest enough, to seek advice from others. Maybe these are things Jacob learned from his grandfather, to learn and dwell in many ‘tents’, to live with a thirst for truth, for wisdom and have the humility to go to wherever you need to find it.
Just as Abraham had sought out Shem and Eber, so did his grandson, just as Abraham was able to learn from others, so too was Jacob. And, how could Jacob have had the audacity to have learned from both Shem and Eber? The Maharal answers, “It is true that when asking a halachic question we have a tradition not to ask a ruling from someone with lesser knowledge if a teacher of greater stature is present, however when it comes to fulfilling the soul’s need for Torah in general, a person should not be limited and go wherever they find the water sweetest.”