In the rabbinic chronology of Jacob’s story, the patriarch is blessed by his father at age 63, leaves home to study for 14 years and finally, after seven years of labour for Laban, marries at the grand age of 84. By contrast, we are told that his brother, Esau, marries at (just) 40 years of age. What possible moral can this difference have for us?
The rabbis of the Midrash teach: “From this we learn that the Holy One brings forward the happiness of the wicked and delays that of the righteous.”
The concept of God granting happiness may not speak to all of us. Nor is it entirely clear why the wicked should get happiness at all, let alone receive their happiness early. However, underlying the message the rabbis draw from our text is a real insight. We live in an age of instant gratification, in which the new is everywhere and our need for it is immediate. The ability to wait is no longer valued. But there is something virtuous in being able to wait for things that we want. Patience is a quality of the righteous.
And patience has its own reward. It is a trait also of the successful. The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment showed that the ability of children to delay gratification has a direct correlation to wellbeing in later life. Ability to wait is linked to academic success, social confidence and sense of self worth, even to greater physical health.
Jacob is not a role model in many ways. He cheats and he lies. But in his willingness to wait, his lack of need for instant gratification, he is more admirable. In this respect, at least, Jacob is an example for our time — even if marriage at 84 might be taking it to extremes.