The root letters of the name Jacob (Ya'akov) are ayin, kuf and vet. According to Genesis 25:26, Jacob was given his name, because he was born immediately after his brother Esau, and “his hand had hold on Esau’s heel.” (Heel in Hebrew is ah'kev.)The ayin-kuf-vet root of the name Ya'akov is also the root of the word akov, crooked or insidious, and aikev, struggling.
From Esau’s point of view, Jacob was “crooked.” After discovering that Jacob had been blessed by Isaac in his stead, Esau called out: “Is not he rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Genesis 27:36). Esau assumed no personal responsibility for the transfer of the birthright due to his decision to sell the birthright for a bowl of lentils and for stating that birthright has no purpose for him. Upon reading the Biblical narrative, one may conclude that Esau sold his birthright in desperation and then regretted the sale. But, the Torah specifically states that even after Esau had eaten and was no longer famished: “So Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34). As the new bearer of the birthright, the blessing of the firstborn was rightfully Jacob’s. Esau, however, can only see what he believes is his right.
From Jacob’s own perspective, his was a life of struggle (aikev). Even before Jacob and Esau were born, their mother, Rebecca, worried about the babies who were struggling in her womb. In his youth, he could not help but be aware that his father favored his brother. After Jacob received the blessing of the firstborn from Isaac, he had to flee to Haran in Mesopotamia for fear of Esau’s retribution. There he met Rachel and fell in love, only to be tricked into marrying her sister Leah first. He had to work for 14 years for his wily father-in-law, Laban, who stole from him whenever possible. Jacob’s daughter Dina was later abducted in Shechem, and two of his sons almost started a war in revenge. When he finally felt that his life was calming down, his beloved son Joseph disappeared, and Jacob began a 22 year period of mourning until they were reunited.
It is interesting to note that Jacob’s other name, Israel, which was Divinely given, means “He who struggles with God,” because, as filled with struggle as Jacob’s life was, he never lost faith.
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