Jacob the Housebuilder


"How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places Israel" (Numbers 24:5)

From the very outset, just as soon as the contrasting characters of Isaac's twin sons Jacob and Esau started to become apparent, it was clear that Jacob's preference was to be inside. "Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, but Jacob was a sincere man sitting in tents" (Genesis 25:27).

There were two tents in particular in which the young Jacob used to sit: those of his two august teachers, his grandfather Abraham (who lived until Jacob was aged 15), and his father Isaac. Abraham and Isaac were polar opposites. Abraham, the breakaway, the originator, founder of the tradition, was all Chessed, expansive outreach, love and kindness. Isaac, the assiduous student, the follower and receiver of the tradition, was the model of Gevurah, submission, strict discipline and judgment.

Chessed and Gevurah both absolutely need each other. By themselves, wild, untrammeled love and cold, compassionless justice can each be destructive in the extreme (as exemplified in Ishmael and Esau, who embodied the unholy aspects of their respective fathers' special traits). Jacob's task was to show how to bring the polar opposites of Chessed and Gevurah into balance in order to make a perfect whole. This was an integral part of Jacob's work of building his House.

For this reason Jacob sat in the tents of each of his masters learning from both. The Hebrew word for tent, Ohel, has the connotation of shining light (see Job 31:26). A tent or canopy "shines down" in the sense of giving definition to the space beneath it. The contrasting ways and teachings of the two founding fathers Abraham and Isaac were two canopies of light shining down upon the young Jacob. To put it in terms of dialectics, Jacob took Abraham's thesis and Isaac's antithesis and fused them into the unique synthesis that would be Jacob's heritage to all his descendants, the Children of Israel.

Whereas the twin lights of Abraham and Isaac shone down from above to below, Jacob's light was to be a pillar of ascent from below upwards. Jacob's synthesis enables the spiritual seeker to return to God's original unity, which could begin to be revealed initially only through first revealing plurality in the form of the two apparent opposites Chessed and Gevurah, the two fundamental poles of creation as embodied in Abraham and Isaac. Jacob completed the holy triad by revealing the unifying quality of Tiferet, synthesis, harmony and beauty, forging a dynamic unity out of the contrasting aspects revealed in Chessed and Gevurah.

Tiferet strives ever upwards transcending these two counterpoised poles to rise to their source in the unifying root quality of Daat, "Knowledge", and then rising yet higher, beyond the counterpoised aspects of Chokhmah (holistic "Wisdom") and Binah (analytic "Understanding"), right up to Keter, the Crown, the Will of Wills, the Supreme Source: ultimate unity.

Outside and Inside

Abraham and Isaac's nomadic life in tents, on the mountain and in the field, suggests a certain lack of permanence. For the Godly revelations they each embodied were stages in the unfolding of a greater whole that was still to be completed and perfected. It was Jacob who was to give the holy tradition the permanence of a House, a fixed and enduring structure.

Abraham, the man of the Mountain, and Isaac, man of the Field, are both associated with the outdoors. But if Jacob was the builder of the House, that is not to say that he only knew about life indoors. On the contrary, at the end of twenty years of exile from his parental home and land, Jacob, defending himself against the accusations of his father-in-law Laban, reminds him: "These twenty years that I've been with you [shepherding your sheep in the outdoors] ... scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night..." (Genesis 31:38-40). Jacob was just as much an outdoors person -- a profound student and lover of nature and a watcher of the heavens -- as his fathers and teachers, Abraham and Isaac.

In fact, Jacob was able to build his House only by first knowing the outside -- the Mountain and the Field -- "inside out". Jacob became a master of both. He began his journey to Laban with a visit to the very Mountain where Abraham had gone to sacrifice, namely Isaac's Field (Genesis 28:11; see next segment). Twenty years later, confronted by Laban, Jacob himself "sacrificed on the mountain" (ibid. v.54), albeit a different mountain. Jacob was also a man of the field, as when he "sent and called Rachel and Leah to the field" (Genesis 31:4) and when he came to Isaac to receive the blessings and Isaac said: "See the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that HaVaYaH has blessed" (ibid. 27:27).

Homelessness and exile

Harmony is forged out of the raw materials provided by chaos. True harmony comes from dealing successfully with every kind of opposing force and, wherever possible, finding a way to integrate each one so as to make it work as part of the greater whole.

For Jacob to build his House it was therefore necessary for him to confront every kind of hardship and deal successfully with each challenge, transforming it into something that would actually contribute to the overall structure he sought to achieve. With consummate skill Jacob applied different Chessed or Gevurah traits according to specific need in each of the different situations he faced. The right balance in any given situation is called Mishpat: correct, fair judgment taking all factors into consideration. This is an aspect of Emet, truth. "You gave truth to Jacob" (Michah 7: 20). Nothing is more precious than knowing the true, just course to take in all situations, especially when dealing with conflicting aspects of one's very self.

For someone trying to build his House it is striking how much of Jacob's life was spent in bitter exile from home. According to tradition, after he received the blessings from Isaac instead of Esau, Jacob spent fourteen years unremitting study with Shem and Eiver. This was followed by Jacob's twenty year stint with Laban. He then spent another two years on the road before finally coming home to Isaac. At the end of his life Jacob again went into exile, this time in Egypt, where he went to be reunited with his long-lost son Joseph. Only after Jacob's death was he carried back to the Land of Israel by his sons and finally brought to rest in his eternal home in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.

Building the foundations

Yet Jacob's years in exile from home were themselves years of building. He started off studying with Shem and Eiver -- because the House he had to construct could only be built by going to the very roots of the Torah tradition, namely the wisdom that had been passed down from Adam to Noah and which Noah in turn handed on to his son Shem from whom it came to Shem's great grandson Eiver.

"A man must leave his father and his mother and attach himself to his wife and they must become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). After Jacob received the blessings instead of Esau, Rebecca and Isaac both counseled him to leave the Promised Land and go to Padan Aram to find a wife from among the "other side" of Abraham's family back in the land from which he had come. Laban was now their head. It was to Laban that Jacob headed immediately after his fourteen years with Shem and Eiver. It was to build his own family that Jacob went into exile from his parental home. For the first step in building his House was to gather together the souls who would be living in it.

Building his House was to turn into a protracted, hard and at times tormenting labor. To inspire himself as he first set off for Padan Aram, Jacob stopped at the holy spot where Abraham had built the altar to sacrifice Isaac. There was Jacob alone out on this Mountain-Field as the sun went down, leaving the world to darkness. Before bedding down for the night at this exposed spot, Jacob took stones to make a rough structure where he could lie down more safely, a first primitive "house". It was on that spot that he had his dream of the ladder with angels going up and down, and when he awoke he said "This is none other than the House of God" (Genesis 28:17). This dream was Jacob's guiding vision until he completed his task (see next segment).

Family troubles

At Laban's Jacob's work began in earnest (see Laban). A house is far more than the mere building, the outward physical structure. The essence of the house is the souls living a meaningful, harmonious life together in it. To build his house, Jacob had to work hard to earn his wives Rachel and Leah, the amazing women who together with their two hand-maidens Bilhah and Zilpah were to mother his children. The holy rivalry between these women only added to Jacob's other trials during the years of child-bearing and early rearing, as their family of twelve totally different, highly individualistic boys and one girl took shape. Building houses means dealing with real live people the way they actually are, including cheats and liars like Laban.

When Jacob eventually left Laban to return home, the entire structure of his House was in peril of being razed down to the very foundation because of the raging fury of the jealous Esau. As Jacob entered the Land of Israel together with his long caravan of wives, little children and household, his camels, donkeys, cattle and flocks, Esau came out to meet them with four hundred armed warriors! The opposite of building is destruction. Jacob would only be able to create his amazing house of love and peace if he could first overcoming Esau, the extreme of Gevurah, harsh judgment, brute force and destruction (see Esau).

With supreme wisdom and subtlety Jacob succeeded in establishing a modus vivendi with Esau, after which he immediately threw himself into the business of practical housebuilding. "And on that day Esau went back on his path to Seir. And Jacob journeyed to Succot and built himself a house and for his cattle he made huts (Succot), therefore he called the name of the place Succot" (Genesis 33:17-18). Jacob was not only worried about the humans. He also showed his practical concern for the animals. This is because the peace and harmony Jacob sought to construct must prevail throughout the entire creation (see Succot).

Just when Jacob wanted to settle down and dwell peacefully in the land, disaster after disaster befell him. His daughter Dinah was seduced by a Canaanite prince. His beloved wife Rachel died, after which his oldest son Reuven tried to force a major change in Jacob's private life. Afterwards, Jacob's favorite son Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, who told Jacob that Joseph had been killed. Next Jacob's son Judah, having seen two sons die as a punishment for sexual crime, himself became involved in a major scandal with his daughter-in-law....

Issues involving sexual morality recur again and again in Jacob's life. This is because sexual purity is the vital foundation of a truly healthy, harmonious society, nowhere more so than in the home. Only through sexual purity are pure, holy souls born to people a world in which justice, kindness, courtesy, love and harmony prevail.

Another recurring theme in the story of Jacob even more prominent than that of sexuality is the theme of livelihood and eating. The very first Bible story about Jacob tells how he was preparing food for Isaac -- the pot of soup that he exchanged with Esau in return for Esau's birthright. Many of Jacob's years with Laban were taken up with building an economic support base by breeding herds of sheep with which to support himself. Joseph, having been sold into slavery in Egypt, ends up as Pharaoh's chief minister and comes up with a plan to save the whole country from seven years of famine, which is the opposite of livelihood. It is this famine that eventually leads to the denouement of the story of Joseph's disappearance, because the famine forces Jacob to send his sons to buy food in Egypt, where they are at last reunited with Joseph, who calls on Jacob to come to live in Egypt.

Life in all homes is bound up with the livelihood coming into those homes. Much of human consumption, whether of food or anything else, actually takes place within the house and home. This is why so much of the story of Jacob centers on the theme of livelihood. When Adam at the fruit of the tree of knowledge, it was a sin of eating and consumption. To build the true House, Jacob had to rectify this flaw.

God is One

Jacob's moment of triumph came on his deathbed. After all his years of toil and trouble as he built his house step by step until everything was in place, he finally asked his sons what they believed in. All twelve replied with one accord: "Hear, Israel, HaVaYaH is our God HaVaYaH is one!" (Midrash).

Preparing to pass on from this world, Jacob had the joy of seeing twelve fine, strong heirs determined to continue the tradition of his fathers with perfect loyalty and devotion. They were ready to build their houses and rear their children so as to multiply the House of Israel in order to bring the message of God's unity, harmony and love to all the world. Jacob had built his House and he could finally rest.



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