The term tshuva (תשובה), which is a central concept of the Jewish tradition, is often translated inadequately as repentance, but literally means return in the sense of a return to the path of right living. The term tshuva as far as I am aware does not appear in the Bible at all; and, seemingly, the concept of tshuva is not a central concept of the Bible. Although the root word return (שוב) does appear often in the Bible, the concept sometimes has a secular meaning as well as a religious meaning of returning to God. The religious concept of returning to God (by returning to the path of right living) is seemingly not developed or elaborated upon at great length in the Bible. However, in my view, this is a misconception, and the concept of tshuva (although the term does not appear in the Bible) is indeed a central concept not only of the Jewish tradition but also of the Bible – and, the concept is elaborated upon especially in the story of Jacob.
Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher who lived in the 12th century) distinguishes between two kinds of tshuva in his laws of tshuva of his law code – tshuva that is connected to a specific action and tshuva that is not connected to a specific action (self-examination in relation to one’s thoughts and character traits). The story of Jacob’s tshuva, in my view, is in the sense that Maimonides termed tshuva that is connected to a specific action – Jacob wronged his brother Esau in stealing Esau’s blessing.
Maimonides writes in his law code (laws of tshuva 2, 4) “it is of the ways of tshuva…and one changes one’s name; that is, I am different and I am not the same person that did those actions, and one changes all of one’s actions to good and to the path of righteousness”. As a part of Jacob’s tshuva his name is changed to Israel (Genesis 32, 29 and 35, 10), the Biblical name not only of the land of Canaan but of the Jewish people. The name Jacob (יעקב) in Hebrew means to deceive – as Esau says “he is rightly named Jacob for he has deceived (ויעקבני) me these two times” (Genesis 27, 36); and Isaac says to Esau “your brother came in deceit and took your blessing” (Genesis 27, 35). The name Israel (ישראל) if divided in the middle contains the word righteous together with the term God and literally means righteous of God (ישר אל). Jacob in doing tshuva transforms himself from one who deceives to one who is righteous before God.
The idea that the story of Jacob is in essence a story of tshuva is not an original idea on my part. In traditional Judaism, on Sabbaths and holidays there is in the Synagogue a reading from a section of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and a parallel reading from a prophetic work of the Bible. The story of Jacob is read in the Synagogue over the course of three Sabbaths, and the high point of the story dealing with Jacob’s tshuva is read on the last of the three Sabbaths – Vayishlach. On the second Sabbath Vayetzei the prophetic reading (prior to our reading of Jacob’s tshuva the following Sabbath) is from the Book of Hosea, and the theme of the passage from the Book of Hosea is tshuva – indicating in my eyes that in the ancient Jewish tradition the story of Jacob was viewed as a story of tshuva.
I want to argue that the basic elements and stages of tshuva in the sense of being connected to a specific action that Maimonides delineates in his laws of tshuva (chapters 1 and 2) are reflected in the story of Jacob’s tshuva in the Torah reading Vayishlach. The first stage of tshuva occurs in the mind and conscience of the person – acknowledgment and confession (to oneself and to God) of wrongdoing. The first stage of Jacob’s tshuva is reflected in the story of his wrestling with a man who is termed in the Book of Hosea (12, 4) as an angel of God. In my view, this story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God is an allegory of his wrestling with his own moral conscience – and according to rabbinic commentary the angel of God is seen as a guardian angel of Esau. The angel asks Jacob “what is your name?” (Genesis 32, 28), and I think that it is obvious that this is not a question of information but a moral question. Jacob is being asked to acknowledge and confess to himself and to the angel of God (his conscience) that he is Jacob who has deceived his brother Esau.
The night before Jacob is to meet Esau (in returning to the land of Israel from Mesopotamia where he had fled from Esau), Jacob is afraid that Esau is still bent on revenge (for Jacob having stolen Esau’s blessing) and intends to kill him (and perhaps his family as well) – and he then encounters the angel of God and is forced to acknowledge and confess that he is Jacob who has deceived his brother Esau. The angel asks Jacob “what is your name?” (Genesis 32, 28) – and, Jacob is being asked to acknowledge and confess to himself and to the angel of God (his conscience) that he is Jacob who has deceived his brother Esau. After the struggle with the angel of God, Jacob limps – “and he limped upon his thigh” (Genesis 32, 32). When a person engages in a process of self-examination, and acknowledges one’s wrongdoing and weakness of character this is as if one is then limping. Jacob demands that the angel of God bless him – “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32, 27). When we overcome ourselves and our pride, in acknowledging our wrongdoing and weakness of character, we have a feeling that we are worthy of a blessing. The angel of God blesses Jacob – “And he blessed him there” (Genesis 32, 30). Already there after this first stage of tshuva Jacob is worthy of a blessing as there is no possibility of tshuva without this first step of acknowledging one’s wrongdoing and weakness of character.
The second stage of tshuva is appeasing the one who we have wronged. Before Jacob wrestles with the angel of God, symbolizing his wrestling with his conscience and marking the beginning of his process of tshuva, Jacob already had planned to give a gift to Esau in order to appease him. This gift, though, was not a result of tshuva but out of his fear of Esau seeking revenge and fear that Esau might kill Jacob (and perhaps his family as well) – “And Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed and he divided the people who were with him…and he took of that which came to his hand a present for Esau” (Genesis 32, 8 & 14). However, after Jacob wrestles with the angel of God the giving of the gift to Esau does then become an act intended to appease him as a result of Jacob’s tshuva. When Jacob gives the gift to Esau he significantly calls the gift a blessing (Genesis 33, 11) – “please take my blessing” (קח נא את ברכתי). Jacob calls the gift a blessing because it is intended to appease Esau regarding the blessing that Jacob stole from him, and it was in response to Jacob’s stealing the blessing that Esau became so angry and bent on revenge.
There is another stage of tshuva – however, this stage is not a necessary stage. If we find ourselves in a similar situation to that in which we had previously committed wrongdoing, this similar situation will be viewed as a test indicating whether we have truly done tshuva. This stage is not a necessary stage of the process of tshuva because we are not required to place ourselves in such a situation in order to determine whether we have truly done tshuva; rather if we happen to encounter such a similar situation then that situation will be viewed as a test whether we have truly done tshuva. Since this stage is not a necessary stage of the process of tshuva, the tshuva of Jacob is complete after the second stage in which he appeases Esau regarding the blessing that he had stolen from him. Therefore, after he appeases Esau, he comes to Shechem complete (and no longer limping) – “And Jacob came whole (complete) to the city of Shechem” (Genesis 33, 18). The word whole (שלם) in the verse is from the same Hebrew root as the word Shalom (שלום), which means not only peace in the sense of an absence of violence but also in the sense of wholeness and harmony.
Seemingly, the story of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) appears out of place, and is inserted in the middle of the story of Jacob and Esau. However, the story is not out of place, and the story is a test of Jacob who again finds himself in a situation of deception. The central question is how he will respond after his having done tshuva. Jacob himself does not deceive; it is his sons Simon and Levi who deceive – “And the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and Hamor his father deceitfully” (Genesis 34, 13). When Jacob discovers the deception, he does indeed voice protest in distinction to his having voiced no protest to the plan of his mother to deceive Esau and Isaac in stealing the blessing of Esau – indicating that he has truly done tshuva and is no longer the same person in terms of his moral character. Even though Jacob’s protest is voiced after the horrible atrocity (as Jacob did not know of the plan and deception) in which Simon and Levi murder all of the males of the city of Shechem, and even though his protest is understandably of a pragmatic nature that the actions of Simon and Levi have endangered the entire family of Jacob (understandably because it is natural that Jacob would fear and worry for the safety of his family before thinking about the issue from a moral point of view); nevertheless, Jacob does voice protest. Toward the end of Jacob’s life when he is about to die and his family is not in danger he voices a very severe, moral criticism of the anger and rage of Simon and Levi that Jacob describes as fierce and cruel (Genesis 49, 5-7).
After the story of Dinah, Jacob then receives the name Israel (righteous of God) from God. When Jacob wrestled with the angel of God he did not receive the name Israel; rather, the angel of God told him that in the future he would be called Israel – “your name will no longer be called Jacob but Israel” (Genesis 32, 29). At this point in wrestling with the angel of God he was not worthy of being called Israel because his tshuva had only just begun. Only after Jacob appeases Esau regarding the blessing that he stole from him, and after he shows in the story of Dinah that he has truly done tshuva, is Jacob given by God the name Israel – “And God said to him, your name is Jacob; your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel will be your name, and He called his name Israel” (Genesis 35, 10).