Sunday, December 07, 2008

Jacob and the well

Thoughts on this week's Torah portion:

This week's parsha had me somewhat annoyed. I was reading something rather annoying about the patriarch Jacob. I hope the following is not reading in to the text too much, but it seems to me to be the surface meaning of the text and I assume I am not the first to notice this. (This seems like something Steven Brams might think up. I should really read his book.)

While Jacob was walking through the land of the people of the east in search of his relatives in Haran, he comes across a bunch of flocks of sheep and their owners surrounding a well. Apparently the group of people who used the well did not trust each other or anyone else very much. So the group devised a clever system for preserving access to their water such that they could all see who is taking what, and also be reasonably certain that no one was taking more than their share and that no stranger took their water.

Here is what they did: they covered the well with a boulder of some sort that was so heavy that it could only be moved by all of them together. So if a stranger came and wanted to take some water himself or water his own flock he could not as it is unlikely he could move the boulder alone. The same holds if one of the members of the group wanted to take some water without the others. The only way one of them can get water was if all the others agreed. That is, they all gathered at the well and moved the boulder together and all saw how much each other took.

It is as if the only way to access a safe that we share in common was for each one of us to have a key, and the safe could only be open when we all insert our key. This way the only way to access the safe is if we all access it together. It is a great system that eliminates the need for trust and presumably allowed some desert people who would otherwise have been fighting over water rights to the well, to share the water.

But then along comes a stranger Jacob who is somehow capable of removing the boulder himself, presumably through brute physical strength. He notices that if he did so he can earn some advantage for himself and his relative, but mostly he would impress some girl who he thought he had a shot at because she is a relative. So he removes the boulder and allows his relative to take water from the well without waiting for the rest of the owners.

If I were one of the shepherds there, I would have been both elated and scared. I get to water my flock early, but on the other hand, I now know that Rachel can water her sheep at any time without the rest of us. She now has access to the water any time, and we still need her, or at the very least, we still need most of the rest of the group. A well has a finite supply of water. If one of the members has unlimited access, and the rest have to ration themselves, the one has a definite advantage and the potential to deprive the rest of water.

Jacob single-handedly broke down the system that enabled trust between the various shepherds, and probably screwed the whole neighborhood.

Naturally Lavan wants Jacob to work for him and tend his sheep. Jacob has access to the water anytime making Lavan no longer dependent on the coalition.

Lavan then invites Jacob to stay with him, which he does for 30 days. Then seemingly out of nowhere Lavan offers to pay Jacob for his services. We were not told that Jacob had begun to work, so it seems to be Lavan's way of asking him to stop freeloading. Lavan then conspired to keep Jacob on for 14 years. This advantage was worth both of Lavan's daughters and two maids.

Jacob became Lavan's shepherd, and there is no reason to think that he did not use his strength advantage for Lavan's flocks. That is why the flock multiplied as much as it did; their flock was able to get more water than all the other flocks - Jacob was able to get as much as he wanted for his flock.

Lavan and Jacob were now conspirators. Rashi claims that when Jacob was first sent word to Lavan that he was around, he alluded to his ability to be Lavan's "brother in deception". Rashi of course meant that Jacob was warning Lavan that he could not be conned, but in reality what Rashi should have intended was that Jacob was saying "you can't con a con man".

And this is exactly what seems to happen. Jacob manages to take possession over a good chunk of Lavan's household. His wife steals stuff from her father's house. Jacob takes his father-in-law's camels and sneaks out of the town, where Lavan is now pretty powerless to do anything.Jacob wins in the end.

Jacob does not seem like the good guy here.


Shabbabnikit said...

When I first began to embrace Judaism I took a copy of the Tanach (a totally English - and I mean modern English, not King James English - Bible I had received in high school) and simply read it cover to cover like a novel. I realized that Jacob and his descendants were not always the nicest people around (especially King David - he was basically the kind of overly aggressive, entitled SOB that typically finds himself in a position of power like that) but the heroes of the Jewish people at that time did what was advantageous FOR THEM - and as they say, history is written by the victors.

I saw it ultimately as the kind of collective history and records of a people that nowadays is handled by the government. In this case this particular group of people wrote it down and carried it with them wherever they went.

But this does not make them or their ancestors inherently good or bad, just perhaps lucky that they prevailed and have been able to tell their story all this time.

EJ said...

If you look through Bereishis, you will find that Jacob regularly challenges convention and then seems pissed off when things don't go his way. One example is when he asks for Rachel over Laya, which was not in accordance with how people did things in Mesopotamia.