The Three Lives of Jacob

The life of Jacob

“Everything that happened to the Patriarchs,” writes Nachmanides in his commentary on the Book of Genesis, “is a signpost for their children. This is why the Torah elaborates its account of their journeys, their well-digging and the other events [of their lives] … these all come as an instruction for the future: for when something happens to one of the three Patriarchs, one understands from it what is decreed to occur to his descendants.”[1]

The Torah devotes more than twenty-five chapters (Genesis 25-50) to the life of Jacob, the third and “choicest of the Patriarchs”[2]—a life which spanned three lands:

a) The Holy Land, where he spent the first half of his life[3] secluded in “the tents of Torah.”[4]
b) The Mesopotamian city of Charan, where he spent 20 years in the employ of “Laban the Deceiver,” fathered 11 of his 12 sons, and amassed “much sheep, as well as maids, servants, camels and asses.”[5]
c) The land of Egypt, where he resided for the last 17 years of his life.[6]

Many events, triumphs and tribulations crowd each of these three epochs in the saga of Jacob. But each period also represents a particular state of affairs in Jacob’s life and in his relationship with his environment, providing us with three major “signposts” by which to negotiate our own lives’ reiteration of the lives of our ancestors.

Sovereignty, Struggle, and Subjugation

To what extent are we the master of our circumstances? Rare is the individual who could offer a single, consistent reply to this question. Rather, we recognize various states of dependency and control, various degrees of mastery over our lives. Generally speaking, we experience three such states: sovereignty, struggle, and subjugation.

We each harbor a vision of a transcendent self, of a soul, pure and inviolable, at the core of our being. This self, we are convinced, is not subject to the caprice of circumstance, remaining forever aloof from the shifting dictates of society and convention. And though this core self is not always accessible to us, there come moments in our lives—“moments of truth,” we call them—in which it asserts its will over every and any influence save its own internal truth.

But these moments, for most of us, are few and far between. More often, we are in a state of struggle—struggle with our environment, with our own habits and behavior patterns, with the passions of our divided hearts.

While a state of struggle indicates that we have not attained full mastery over our existence, it is also a sign of life: we have not succumbed. We are resisting the forces that seek to sway us from our internal truth; we are engaging them and battling them. Indeed, this is life at its fullest and most productive—even more so, in a certain sense, than those “moments of truth” of resolute perfection.

But we also know times of powerlessness and subordination. Times when we are faced with circumstances which we have neither the ability to control nor to even resist; times when it seems that life has been stopped dead in its tracks, arrested by an impregnable wall of helplessness and despair.


Jacob was a tzaddik—a perfectly righteous person who never for a moment ceased to exercise a full and unequivocal mastery over his life.[7] But within the context of his perfect existence, he experienced the equivalents of all three states of life described above.

His years in the Holy Land were years of tranquil perfection—years in which nothing alien to his quintessential self intruded upon his life of Torah study, prayer and service of G-d.

His Charan years were characterized by challenge and struggle. There he locked horns with Laban the Deceiver and bested him at his own game;[8] there “heat consumed me by day, and frost at night; and sleep was banished from my eyes.”[9] In the words of Esau’s angel to Jacob upon Jacob’s return from Charan, “You have struggled with G-d and with men, and have prevailed.”[10]

For the last seventeen years of his life, Jacob lived in the land of Egypt. If Charan was “the object of G-d’s wrath in the world,”[11] Egypt was “the depravity of the earth”[12]—the most G-dless and debased society of all time. In Egypt, Jacob was forced to pay homage to Pharaoh,[13] the arch-idol and demigod of the land. Upon Jacob’s passing in Egypt, his body was in the possession of the Egyptian “physicians” for 40 days, who embalmed it after their custom.[14] Indeed, the reason why Jacob commanded Joseph to bury him in the Holy Land (a feat which required much maneuvering and manipulation to secure Pharaoh’s consent[15]) was that he feared that, in Egypt, his body and gravesite would become an object of idolatry.[16]

Jacob’s Egyptian years thus represent what, in the context of his perfectly sovereign life, were a time of subjugation to an alien power. Yet the Torah regards these as the best years of his life![17] For Jacob knew to exploit the very circumstances which, on the face of it, inhibit and arrest one’s vitality and achievement, as circumstances to foster the strivings of his soul and further its aims. Indeed, it was here in Egypt, under the rule and subsequent enslavement of the Pharaohs, that Jacob’s descendants were forged into the people of Israel.

The Signposts

“Everything that happened to the Patriarchs … is decreed to occur to their descendants.” Not that they occur in exactly the same manner. Our own moments of transcendence seem fleeting and inconsequential in comparison with Jacob’s decades of tranquil perfection in the Holy Land; our own struggles seem wan and inept when measured against Jacob’s Charan years; our own lives under circumstances of subjugation and oppression seem black indeed when set against Jacob’s Egyptian period. Yet the three lives of Jacob are “signposts” that guide, inspire and enable our own.[18]

Jacob’s life in the Holy Land empowers us to experience moments of true freedom—moments in which we assert our true will over all forces, both external and internal, that seek to quell it.

Jacob’s Charan years inspire and enable us to not only persevere in our struggles but to revel in them, to experience them as vibrant and exhilarating periods in our lives.

And Jacob’s Egyptian period teaches us how to deal with those situations in which we feel overpowered by forces beyond our control. It teaches us that these times, too, are part and parcel of our lives; that these times, too, can be negotiated with wisdom, dignity and integrity. That these times, too, can be realized as vital and productive seasons of our lives.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Vayeitzei 5750 (1989)[19]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.


[1]. Nachmanides’ commentary on Torah, Genesis 12:6. See note #18 below.

[2]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 76:1; cf. Talmud, Pesachim 56a.

[3]. As well as the years between his return from Charan and his relocation to Egypt.

[4]. Genesis 25:27; Rashi there and on 28:9.

[5]. Genesis 30:43; ibid. 31:38.

[6]. Ibid. 47:28.

[7]. In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi describes the spiritual and moral characteristics of three types of people: the tzaddik (perfectly righteous person), the beinoni (“intermediate” person), and the rasha (sinner or wicked person):
The tzaddik enjoys a perpetual and absolute mastery over his life: he never behaves contrary to the will of his quintessential self, nor does any such thought enter his mind or any such desire invade his heart. He is fully in control, and thus leads a life of flawless, tranquil perfection.
At the other extreme is the rasha, who succumbs to the materialism of his environment and the animal passions of his heart. His soul is a prisoner in its own palace, its energies diverted to pursuits that are alien to it but which it is powerless to resist.
The beinoni occupies the middle ground between these two extremes. The “intermediate man” neither triumphs nor surrenders—he struggles. His life is a perpetual battle to maintain his integrity in the face of all corrupting influences—both from without and from within.
Thus, the basic state of the tzaddik is one of sovereignty; of the beinoni, struggle; and of the rasha, surrender. Yet all three types experience moments that resemble—within the context of their basic state—all three states being described above.

[8]. In Jacob’s words to Rachel, “If his power is in deception, I am his brother in deception” (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 70:12).

[9]. Genesis 31:40.

[10], Ibid. 32:29.

[11]. Rashi on Genesis 11:32 (“Charan” means “wrath”).

[12]. Genesis 42:9; et al.

[13]. Ibid. 47:7-10.

[14]. Ibid. 50:2-3.

[15]. See Rashi on Genesis 50:6.

[16]. Ibid. 47:29.

[17]. See Baal HaTurim on Genesis 47:28.

[18]. The Hebrew word for “signpost” used by Nachmanides (and by the Midrash, in Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 9) to refer to the Patriarchs’ presaging of our lives is siman (lit., “sign” or “marker”). The word is significant: in Torah law, a siman not only marks or identifies, but actually generates and establishes a truth (e.g., the simanei kashrut, the “signs” which render an animal kosher). Our sages are saying that our lives are not only foretold by the events recounted by the Torah, but are actually generated and enabled by them.

[19]. Sefer HaSichot 5750, vol. I, pp. 445-453.


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Rabbi Dovid Wolkenfeld
17 years ago

8, Kislev, 5766

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

You write that readers should see Gen. 11:32 for an instance of Charan in the context of G-ds wrath. Yet, there is no Rashi on v. 32.

Kol Tov,

Rabbi Yossi Marcus
16 years ago

The source provided by Rabbi Jacobson is correct. Rashi on Genesis 11:32, the last Rashi in the section of Noach, s.v., Bcharan, reads as follows:
The nun of Charan is reversed, to teach you that until Abram there was the wrath of G-d in the world. [I.e., the long nun, which appears immediately prior to Lech Lecha, the story of Abram, acts as a barrier between what was before Abram and after his entrance on the scene.]
Congratulations to Rabbi Jacobson on very accurate sources throughout your vast website.

The Meaningful Life Center