Livestock play a major role in יעקב's life. יעקב tries fooling his father by wearing a goatskin. יעקב works as a shepherd for twenty years, acquires a large flock of sheep and marries a shepherdess whose name means sheep.
In this week's פרשה, livestock once again surface as an important focus. In attempting to pacify his brother עשו, יעקב sends an offering of sheep and goats (לב:טז). Later, יעקב uses the excuse of having too many sheep to explain to עשו why they could not travel together (לג:יג), erects tents for his sheep (לג:יז) and, at the end of the פרשה, we are informed that עשו and יעקב could not share the land because of the abundance of their sheep (לו:ז).
Truth be told, the story of יעקב is not the first time we find the prominence of sheep, nor is it the last. Lot and Avraham had to separate because the land could not sustain their flocks (יג:ו) and the tribes of ראובן & גד request to separate from the rest of the nation as a result of their sheep (במדבר לב:א-ד). What should be of concern is what happens to those people who separate as a result of their flocks. Lot is removed from the destiny of the Jewish people as are לבן and עשו. Perhaps this is what משה feared when ראובן & גד first approached him asking to separate for the purpose of their flocks - that they too were looking for a way to sever their destiny from that of עם ישראל. With this concern in mind, it would seem strange that יעקב, too, should be so preoccupied with sheep.
A closer look, however, reveals another significant element at work. Lot chooses to reside in evil סדום based on the availability of grazing land, even at the expense of his wife and children. ראובן & גד similarly have their priorities reversed, emphasizing their need for corrals for their sheep more than their need for protection for their families (במדבר לב:טז). The concern is not so much the focus on the sheep, but the impropriety of priorities.
In light of this, יעקב's behavior in this week's פרשה appears even more troubling. יעקב transports his entire family across the river, but mysteriously remains on the other side of the river (almost a premonition of what ראובן & גד would later do). רש"י, citing the מדרש, comments that יעקב had returned to his base camp to retrieve small vessels. On the surface it would appear that יעקב had fallen into the same trap as Lot, לבן and עשו - placing priorities on material possessions rather than on family. There is, however, one fundamental difference. That night, יעקב encounters a mystery person with whom he struggles all night. In the end יעקב prevails, but not without being wounded first and receiving a ברכה.
Perhaps it could be suggested that יעקב's nocturnal struggle was essentially an internal one - a struggle with himself. On the way to לבן's house he dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder bridging heaven and earth. After twenty years in לבן's house he still dreams, but this time of sheep. יעקב's experience in לבן's house impacted on him profoundly, more than יעקב could have ever imagined. That night, as יעקב left his family to retrieve some small vessels, he struggled to define himself. Would he carry the values of לבן with him, or could he bring himself to leave them behind?
In the end יעקב prevailed, even coming to terms with himself as represented by the blessing he receives from his "alter-ego." Yet יעקב also had to face the very real consequences of twenty years in לבן's house, as he walks away wounded. As the paradigm for all Jews יעקב represents the very real struggle we all face, balancing our eternal values with the temporal sheep of our daily lives. The sheep will occupy us at times, but if we fall under their spell we will find ourselves removed from our true destinies, as were Lot, עשו, לבן and ראובן וגד. Only by recognizing the reality of the struggle, even at the expense of being wounded, will we be rewarded with the blessing of being at peace with ourselves.