A majority of the Book of Genesis is dedicated to telling the story of Yaakov, and it is a robust, complex, and meaningful narrative which has the capacity to speak to each and every one of us, and it begins in Parashat Toldot.
Yaakov’s story is one of struggle to find his true self, and whether or not he ever actualizes his true self is up for debate. The major theme of his story is one of a man struggling with his own darkness and brokenness, and viewing the narrative through the lens of Jungian archetypal psychological proves very fruitful.
According to Carl Jung, the psyche is made up for four archetypes: the Self, the Anima/Animus, the Persona, and the Shadow. In very simple terms, each is defined as follows:
- The Self is that aspect of psyche that represents a unified unconsciousness that is created through the process of individuation; it is the unified psyche.
- The Anima is the feminine image in the masculine psyche, and the Animus is the masculine image in the feminine psyche. In essence, it is the representation of one’s true conscious self and how an individual communicates with the collective subconscious. It is how we view ourselves.
- The Persona is how we project ourselves to others. It is the place in the psyche that we wear our metaphorical masks.
- The Shadow is the part of our unconscious mind where we internalize traumas and repressed ideas; it is also the root of our desires and even our personal morals.
Certainly, this is a drastic oversimplification, but it will serve our needs for how to understand one of the most impactful moments of Yaakov’s life: when, compelled by his mother Rivka, he dressed up as his twin brother, Esav, to receive the blessing of the firstborn from their father Yitzhak.
The scene is set that Yitzhak is blind, believes himself to be on his deathbed, and sends Esav out to trap game and prepare a meal. Rivka then concocts a scheme whereby Yaakov will receive the blessing. The question we need to ask – does Yitzhak know what is happening?
The Torah says:
He came to his father, and he said, ‘my father,’ and he said ‘here I am, who are you, my son?’ (Genesis 27:18)
It is significantly reminiscent of Yitzhak’s own conversation with his father as they were ascending Har Moriah where Yitzhak would be bound on the altar! There the Torah says:
Yitzhak said to Avraham his father, and he said, ‘my father,’ and he said, ‘here I am, my son’… (Genesis 22:7)
So what is Yitzhak really asking his son, Yaakov? To understand the depth of what seems to be an innocent question seeking identity, we must look at the ensuing conversation. Yaakov claims to be Esav, to which Yitzhak expresses surprise at the speed with which the game was trapped and the meal prepared. The Torah then states:
Yitzhak said to Yaakov, ‘approach me, please, so I may feel you, my son; are you this one, my son Esav, or not?’ So Yaakov approached Yitzhak his father and he felt him; and he said, ‘the voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav. (Genesis 27:21-22)
Often, this passage is interpreted on the surface that Yitzhak is legitimately unaware of what is happening before him and, due to his blindness, he is unclear as to which son is physically before him. But what if his question goes much deeper than that? Could it be that a father would truly not know which son is which? The Torah then says:
He did not recognize him because his hands were like the hands of Esav his brother… (Genesis 27:23)
So how might we interpret “he did not recognize him” as something greater than simply a question of identity? He did not recognize his hands, in other words, he did not recognize his actions and behaviors – Yaakov was not exhibiting his true Anima or even his typical Persona, rather Yaakov was exhibiting his Shadow. Through this lens, when Yitzhak asked Yaakov, “Who are you, my son?” Rather than read it simply as an innocent question, Yitzhak is asking Yaakov, who are you allowing yourself to become in this moment? Yitzhak gives Yaakov numerous opportunities to be honest and truthful, when he says, “the voice is the voice of Yaakov but the hands of the hands of Esav,” he is offering him the chance to come clean. Yitzhak is acknowledging that the Self of Yaakov is still present, but that Yaakov is succumbing to his Shadow. Yitzhak knows very well which son is present in the room, he does not, however, recognize his actions – symbolized by “the hands of Esav his brother.”
The next verse states:
He said, ‘are you my son Esav; and he said, ‘I am.’ (Genesis 28:24)
It is a confirmation by both parties – Yaakov’s Shadow has overtaken him in that moment.
Yaakov’s life will continue to be consumed by his internal struggle between the different aspects of his nature, culminating in the splitting of his personality as Yisrael/Yaakov – the God Struggler and the Trickster.
This story serves to remind us, in every moment we have to ask ourselves, with full awareness of the complexity of the archetypes and influence our psyche: Who are you?