Jacob did not have any easy life. In fact, when Jacob and his family join Joseph in Egypt, and Pharaoh asks the old man his age, Jacob replies that he is 130 years old — “few and hard have been the years of my life.” (Bereshit 47:9)
It’s true — Jacob’s life was difficult:
• He was ignored by a father who preferred his twin brother;
• He was forced to leave his home and family, fleeing for his life from his brother, whose blessing he stole;
• His uncle Lavan used Jacob’s love for Rachel to extract 14 years of unpaid labor from him;
• His cherished wife, Rachel, died in childbirth; and
• His favorite son, Joseph, was — he believed — killed by wild animals.
The old man who spoke to Pharaoh had reason to be bitter. However, as the rabbis teach us, Jacob was not an innocent victim of hostile forces, for his misfortunes grew out of his own actions.
The Torah treats vows and oaths with the utmost seriousness, insisting, “You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, having made the promise with our own mouth.” (Devarim 23:24) It also teaches, “You incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.” (23:23) The rabbis of the Talmud state repeatedly that the best course is to refrain from vows and oaths completely.
That’s good advice, because Jacob’s greatest tragedy came about as the result of a rash vow. A week after Jacob and his family secretly left Haran to return to Canaan, Lavan and his men catch up to them. Lavan berates Jacob for his clandestine departure and concludes, “Very well, you had to leave because you were longing for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?” — the teraphim (household idols) that Rachel had taken from her father’s house.
Jacob answers with the fateful words, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” Lavan doesn’t discover his stolen property, but that in no way mitigates Jacob’s curse, for shortly thereafter Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin.
Jacob lost the only woman he truly loved because he spoke rashly, but this was not the only misfortune he brought on himself. He is the “poster child” for the rabbinic principle of mida k’neged mida — measure for measure, reciprocity, the concept that the punishment should fit the crime.
Jacob leaves his home in Canaan and almost immediately upon arriving in Haran he meets his cousin Rachel and falls in love. In fact, he is so besotted that he agrees to work for Lavan for seven years for her hand in marriage. At the end of seven years, the wedding finally takes place, but in the morning Jacob discovers that his new bride is not Rachel, the woman he loves, but her sister Leah.
Jacob confronts Lavan, “What is this you have done to me; why did you deceive me?” Lavan replies, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.” The unspoken subtext is, “Maybe where you come from the younger sibling pushes in front of the older one, but everyone knows that’s not how it should be.”
Jacob’s deception has come home to roost. The midrash teaches that when Jacob enters the tent after the wedding feast, the candles are extinguished. And during the night, when he calls his wife Rachel, Leah answers. In the morning, when he discovers what happened, he reproves Leah, saying, “Deceiver and daughter of a deceiver, why did you answer when I called Rachel’s name?” Leah answered, “Is there a teacher without pupils? I learned from your instruction. When your father called you Esau, didn’t you answer, ‘Here I am’?”
Mida k’neged mida. Jacob tricked his father so that the blessing intended for the older son was given to the younger. Now Jacob himself is tricked when the older daughter is substituted for her younger sister. How can Jacob protest? What was done to him is no more than what he did to his father.
It doesn’t end there. Years later, Jacob is tricked by his sons, who bring him a bloody tunic and tell him that Joseph is dead. That fateful moment when Jacob entered his father’s presence claiming to be Esau haunts him throughout his life. Once Jacob gave himself permission to lie and cheat, he found himself living in a world in which no one could be trusted.
Mida k’neged mida — what goes around comes around. A non-Jew said to Hillel, “I will convert to Judaism if you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” The sage replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary — go and learn.”