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Jacob’s Legs

The word for “leg” or “foot” in the Torah is regel. Regel, one would suppose, would be used to represent movement – walking or otherwise journeying.

But the text does something quite instructive with this word. When it is used early in the Torah (the dove in the Ark, the angels visiting Avraham and then Lot, and Avraham’s servant when he sought a wife for Isaac), the usage is always about finding a place to rest, or sit, or repose. The foot is something its owner wants to have washed, and then rested.

This all changes with Jacob – the first person who lifts his feet, who gets moving. Jacob, going to the East and the house of Laban, lifts his feet and gets going. Subsequently the word is used by Jacob to describe how Laban prospered:

For the little you had before I came has grown to much, since the LORD has blessed you according to my regel.

Jacob carries Laban, using Jacob’s own feet. Regel has become identified with Jacob and how he acts. The usage continues after the meeting with Esau – Jacob resists the offer of an escort, and says that he will use his legs at his own pace.

Jacob is renamed Israel. And somehow, the power of the Jewish people is explained in these words: Jews are the change agents in the world. Even Pharaoh says so, when he invests Joseph with power: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or regel in all the land of Egypt.””

The word next appears as a subset of a different word entirely – or so it seems. Joseph accuses his brothers of being meraglim, a word which contains the same root of regel, though usually translated as “spies.” It is a strange accusation (though it can be credibly explained because we know Pharoah had spies in Joseph’s house, and it would have been hard to otherwise explain why the Viceroy was spending so much time and energy on these few random foreigners).

Nevertheless, there may be a subtext here. Joseph keeps insisting that his brothers are “from those who walk.” He may have been trying to get them to step up, to represent their father’s legacy as men of action, from a people who are here to change history, not merely be passive responders and victims. “You are men of legs!” blasts Joseph, trying to goad them into assertive action.

And then there is a shift. When confronted by this accusation of being meraglim, Jacob, the forefather who first lifted his legs, who took positive action in the face of the unknown, becomes passive in turn. He does not decide to go down to Egypt to confront the Viceroy and his accusations. Instead, he begins to wallow:

Their father Jacob said to them, “It is always me that you bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!”

By choosing this path, the path of inaction and reaction, Jacob becomes a shadow of the man he was. This is the start of his decline – and it eventually becomes the rise of the next generation.

But first, Joseph sets the scene. He makes a dinner, and one in which he emulates Avraham and Lot in turn – making his brothers passive.

Then the man brought the men into Joseph’s house; he gave them water to bathe their regel, and he provided feed for their asses.

The brothers, the should-be meraglim have become like the angels being waited on by Avraham and Lot, an audience, subject to whatever the actor onstage does next. They lose the initiative entirely. That is, until Judah confronts Joseph and forces an end to the farce.

In that moment, Judah inherits the mantle of his father.

It is no accident that the blessing Jacob gives to Judah includes the phrase: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his regel.” Judah has shown the necessary initiative for being a change agent for his people and the world.

Jacob’s story ends with what seems like a poetic flourish, unless we are sensitive to the specific words used: “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”

When his feet left the ground, Jacob’s time was finished.

The Torah’s lesson is clear: the world, left to itself, seeks passivity, putting its feet up, doing as little as can be done to get through life. But that is not our mission, the actions defined by Jacob: we are to be proactive and not reactive. We lift our feet, as we are charged to be the change agents that use the time we have to do as much as we can.

Deut. 33:3:

Lover, indeed, of the people,
Their hallowed are all in Your hand.
They followed Your feet,
Lifting up Your words.

[An @iwe, @eliyahumasinter and @susanquinn effort]

Postscript: Jacob’s name itself comes from the word “heel” as he was grasping the heel of his brother. Definitely a “climber” from birth!

Comments are welcome!