Thursday, December 5th, 2019

Parshat Va’Yishlach: Stretching the Truth – Sometimes it Bends, Sometimes it Breaks by Yaakov Bieler

November 19, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Tanach

Did Yaakov embody the quality of honesty?      

             Even though the simple meaning of the phrase in Micha 7:20 “Titain Emet LeYaakov” (give truth to Yaakov) is interpreted by commentators (e.g., Metzudat David, MaLBIM)  as a plea for God to fulfill, i.e., make come “true,”  the various Promises Declared to Yaakov and his offspring,[1] an alternative reading appears in the Midrash. In Beraishit Rabba 70:7, a Cutite[2] asks R. Meir a question concerning Yaakov’s apparently not fulfilling the vow that he made (Beraishit 28:20 ff.)[3] upon awakening from the dream in which he saw the vision of the angels ascending and descending the Heavenly ladder (28:12). “Don’t you (the Jews and the Jewish tradition) say, ‘Yaakov was an honest man, since it is written ‘Titain Emet LeYaakov’’, i.e., in accordance with the principle Mida KeNeged Mida (an individual should be treated in accordance with the manner by which he has conducted himself) can there really be an insistence that Yaakov merits “honest” treatment because of his personal adherence throughout his life to this attribute?[4] 

A key instance that would appear to bear out the general implications of the Cutite’s challenge. 

                A straightforward reading of the Biblical texts describing Yaakov’s life in general, and not only with respect to his failure to separate tithes upon his return to Canaan, would appear to support the Cutite’s query. How can one avoid coming to the conclusion that Yaakov was at least guilty of Geneivat Da’at (lit. “stealing someone’s mind”; misleading another person–), if not outright lying when he represented himself as Eisav to Yitzchak, in order to obtain the blessing meant for his brother (27:19 ff.)? Can the claim that he “purchased” Eisav’s birthright be extended to suggest that he also acquired his literal identity? While Rivka’s encouraging her son Yaakov to deceive Yitzchak (27:6 ff.), suggests that lying and misrepresentation were not qualities that Yaakov possessed innately but rather that he had to be encouraged and taught to do so, nevertheless in the end he carried out the deception completely.[5] 

This type of behavior is generally assumed to be more in keeping with the nature of Eisav than his twin brother Yaakov.  

                As opposed to Yaakov, who is originally described to us as “a simple man, sitting in tents” (25:27), it is Eisav who, from the time that the unique traits of his personality are discernable, is assumed to be the individual for whom subtle trickery is second nature. Commentators on 25:27-8, including the likes of RaShI, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni and RaDaK, attribute to Eisav the cunning, nefariousness, and planning capability to track down and capture animals. They assume that just as animals can be entrapped by someone who has perfected these skills, the same hunter can apply his talents to entrap human beings as well and manipulate them to do as he chooses. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the vocation of Nimrod, the first king to rule over a significant portion of human civilization, is also described as (10:9) “a mighty hunter before HaShem.” His hunting skills were put to use to organize, order, and control a vast number of people. Consequently, such commentators suggest, Yitzchak’s love for Eisav was misplaced; his oldest son, by means of deliberate and elaborate stratagems, “trapped” his father and made him think of him as worthy of particularly special treatment and blessings, when in fact, he was not. 

Yaakov appears to modify his nature and basic instincts over time. 

                Yet, however alien misrepresenting and lying may have been to Yaakov at the outset, he seems over time to recognize that a dedication to unadulterated honesty may be a handicap rather than a virtue in certain circumstances. Consider the following incidents and behaviors, in addition to the manner in which he obtained his father’s blessing: 

a)  Instead of offering to share the food that he has just made, he tempted his tired, hungry brother and agrees to give him a portion only after extracting Eisav’s birthright in return (25:29 ff.);[6] 

b)  Yaakov allowed his father to think that the reason why he is leaving the family home is in accordance with Rivka’s pretense, i.e.,  to seek out a wife paralleling the manner by which Rivka and Yitzchak were brought together, rather than confiding to his father the true reason for his departure, i.e., Eisav’s threat against his life (see 27:42-6); 

c)  The Rabbinic interpretation of 29:12 in e.g., Megilla 13b, depicts Yaakov as plotting to outwit Lavan and marry Rachel instead of Leah;[7] 

d)  If it is assumed that Yaakov approached Lavan to return to Canaan (30:25 ff.) only after Rivka sent him a signal that Eisav’s murderous intent had dissipated  (see 27:44-45),  it would appear inappropriate for Yaakov to then have negotiated with Lavan to stay even longer so that he could enrich himself at the expense of honoring his parents’ wishes ;[8] 

e)  Yaakov’s methodology by which he  elicited the birth of more speckled and spotted sheep and goats than would have naturally been born (30:37 ff.) is not initially explained as the fulfillment of a Divine Directive. Only in 31:10, when Yaakov is trying to convince his wives that they have to leave Aram Naharaim, does he mention that the device of using peeled sticks to increase the number of animals that would be declared his, came to him in a prophetic dream. If Lavan had a certain expectation regarding the outcome of a business deal, would it have been Yaakov’s responsibility to disclose fully the means by which he was going to attempt to assure that things were not going to work out in the manner that Lavan expected? 

f)   The manner in which Yaakov and his family fled when Lavan had gone out to sheer his sheep was certainly devious—twice is the language of “Geneivat Da’at” (stealing someone’s mind, i.e., tricking another individual) mentioned, not only by Lavan himself in 31:26, where his claim could be easily brushed aside as yet another manifestation of Rivka’s father’s insincerity, but also by the Tora itself in 31:20. 

The pattern of Yaakov’s avoidance of the truth appears to continue in this week’s Tora reading.  

                The aforementioned pattern of Yaakov’s actions brings us to a relatively obscure, but nevertheless potentially significant detail of his interchange with Eisav when they finally stand  face to face in Chapter 33 after more than two decades of separation. Following hugs and kisses,[9] introductions, and a negotiation regarding the gifts that Yaakov was offering, Eisav proposed that the two groups, i.e., Yaakov, his family, and his herds on the one hand, and Eisav and the 400 men accompanying him (32:7) on the other, travel together. Yaakov declined the offer, under the pretext that the typical rates of speed of the two groups are so radically different that this plan would not only be impractical, but perhaps even physically harmful (33:13). As an alternative proposal, Yaakov told Eisav that they would be better off establishing a rendezvous point in Se’ir (33:14), and firmly declined Eisav’s final offer of assigning body guards for the rest of Yaakov’s family’s journey. 

                The problem that we encounter at this point in the Tora’s narrative is the fact that Yaakov never goes to Se’ir, despite his ostensible promise to Eisav.  This leads us to contemplate whether Yaakov has again engaged in yet another subterfuge to get out of potential harm’s way.  Will Eisav be entitled to intone, “This is now the third time that Yaakov has tricked me?”—See 27:36. 

Interpreting Yaakov’s failure to travel to Se’ir with his entourage. 

                  RaMBaN is obviously sensitive to the problem, but feels there is a relatively simple way to explain why Yaakov is not to be accused of dishonesty with regard to this matter. The commentator proposes that Se’ir is on the way to Canaan, and it is possible for Yaakov to take that route and pass through Eisav’s kingdom on his way home. All that he told Eisav was that if in the end his entourage chose to journey along those particular paths and trails, they would see one another again at that time. However this is not considered a vow or a promise because Eisav would not benefit by the fulfillment of the promise in any way, and therefore no misimpression was given by Yaakov to his brother. 

Another  interpretation that suggests that the virtue of integrity is at least to some degree relative rather than absolute.  

                An alternate interpretation maintains that when one is in danger, lying is not only not prohibited, but might even be the preferred path to follow. Midrash HaGadol[10]  first quotes an anonymous opinion to the effect that Yaakov’s exchange with Eisav with respect to meeting in Se’ir is direct evidence that in order to keep the peace/prevent violence and bloodshed, one has the option to alter the truth. R. Natan is then quoted as going even further, and stating that in such a situation, it is a Mitzva to change the truth, citing Shmuel I 16:2 as a paradigmatic proof text.  Talmud Yerushalmi Avoda Zora Chapt. 2, Halacha 1 applies to a practical situation the principle presented in the Midrash. “It was taught: If an idolater is accompanying a Jew on the road, the latter should allow him to walk on the right side.[11] And if he asks the Jew, ‘Where are you going?’ he should respond with an “exaggeration”, in the same manner that Yaakov answered Eisav’s question with an “exaggeration” (he never travelled as far as Se’ir.)” Therefore especially according to R. Natan’s approach, Yaakov not only did nothing wrong, but may even have fulfilled a Mitzva. 

                Consequently, not only in the realm of “Pikuach Nefesh” (preserving a life) might dishonesty ironically constitute a form of integrity, which can then serve to justify what Yaakov does with respect to fleeing Lavan as well as meeting up again with Eisav, but also with respect to the broader category of “Shalom Bayit” (peace in the home),[12] clearly the context of not revealing the true cause of Yaakov’s leaving home, and perhaps even his collusion in deceitfully obtaining his father’s blessing. Yet it remains unclear how to include under the rubric of truth and honesty some of the other cases cited above. 

A third interpretation that projects Yaakov’s fulfillment of his commitment to Eisav at some future point in time.  

                In Beraishit Rabba 78:14, R. Abahu assumes a parallel attitude to that of the Cutite when he poses the question which we have been exploring: “We have scoured all of the Biblical written text and we cannot find where our father Yaakov ever went to Mt. Se’ir at any time during his life. How is it possible for an honest man like Yaakov to have lied to Eisav?” But his answer indicates that he thinks that Yaakov’s promise does constitute a binding vow, to be fulfilled by either the forefather or any of his descendents now or at any future time. “When will he (Yaakov) come to him (Eisav)? In the distant future, as it is written, (Ovadia 1:21) ‘And the redeemers will go up on Mt. Zion in order to judge Mt. Eisav.” It would appear that such an approach could also remove the Cutite’s question, i.e., even if Yaakov does not personally separate tithes, that do not mean that when his descendants do so, they are not fulfilling their ancestor’s original commitment, perhaps a new twist on the principle of “Ma’asei Avot Siman LeBanim” (the actions of the forefathers are foreshadowings for their offspring.) 

Reflecting about personal integrity. 

                We all realize that truth telling is not always an easy thing to do. And we are in sore need of role models who stand for this type of principle, and whose personal examples can inspire us. With regard to Yaakov, at least at first glance, it is as if the association between him and truth is ironic and paradoxical rather than actual fact. While the case of not travelling to Se’ir according to the first approach has nothing to do with personal honesty, the two interpretations that follow suggest the outer limits of the debate over truth telling, i.e., that lying can even be a Mitzva in certain circumstances, as opposed to in order to assure that no one is guilty of an empty vow or a false oath, we are given an indefinite extension to make good on our commitments, either in person or vicariously through future members of our family. Ethics and morality, both in theory and practice, are complex rather than clear-cut. How we understand the actions of the Avot and Emahot as well as live our own lives should be informed by serious consideration of these perspectives. 



[1] See e.g., Beraishit 28:13-5; 46:3-4. 

[2] A Samaritan: a member of a people that the King of Assyria settled in Israel following the exile of the Jews from that area. They are called Cutim due to having originated in Cut, a locale in Africa. See II Melachim 17. They did not accept the Oral Tradition and therefore were not considered fully Jewish. Their exclusion from the Jewish people led to clashes with the Halachic authorities, and the debate with R. Meir is an example of their continual attempts to discredit traditional Judaism. 

[3]While in 28:22 Yaakov promises to dedicate to God one tenth of everything that he has, should he return  safely to Canaan, there is no textual record of his having done so, leading the Cutite to impugn Yaakov’s truthfulness.  Although as stated in fn. 2, Cutites regularly exhibited animosity to Jews and Jewish tradition, and therefore this question may not have been posed due to intellectual curiosity rather than general animosity, that does not mean that the issue being raised should not be treated seriously. 

[4] The Midrash records an answer that apparently satisfies the Cutite: 

He (R. Meir) said, “Yaakov tithed the tribe of Levi, one out of ten.” (Since this tribe, emanating from one of Yaakov’s ten sons, eventually is defined as the source of Kohanim and Levi’im [Shemot 28:1; BaMidbar 8:5 ff.] who would dedicate themselves to holiness and Divine Service, it could be said that they were “tithed,” much as Terumot and Ma’asrot, the tithes from agricultural produce and domesticated animals given to Kohanim and Levi’im were similarly separated and sanctified.) 

(The Cutite said:) “But why did he not separate a tenth of the two remaining tribes?” (In toto, Yaakov had twelve, not ten, sons: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Dan, Naftoli, Gad, Asher, Yissachar, Zevulun, Yosef and Binyamin.) 

(R. Meir said:) “Surely there were fourteen, for it says, (Beraishit 48:5) ‘Ephraim and Menashe (the sons of Yosef), even like Reuven and Shimon, will be mine (i.e., counted as full-fledged offspring/tribes.)’ … 

        “Will you not admit that there were four matriarchs?” (Leah, Rachel, Bilha and Zilpa)… 

        “Then deduct the four firstborn of the four matriarchs (Reuven, Yosef, Dan, Gad), since the firstborn ‘Bechor’—see e.g., Shemot 13:15) is holy, and what is holy does not exempt (via tithing) what is holy (i.e., tithing permits using that which is non-holy, ‘Chullin’; that which is itself intrinsically holy does not require tithing to make it permitted to those who are allowed to ‘use’ it.)” 

Since the discussion recorded in the Midrash ends at this point, with R. Meir having the last word, it is implied that the Cutite accepted the Rabbi’s explanation for Yaakov’s behavior. However, it would seem that this is an instance where an answer is being given to someone not deemed worthy of a serious response, an answer considered little more than a “reed” (see e.g., Yerushalmi Berachot 12:4), i.e., an inconsequential retort intended to end the discussion, rather than a serious attempt to resolve the difficulty that had been raised. The simple understanding of Beraishit 28:22 is that Yaakov himself would dedicate to God a portion of his possessions, rather than some of his descendents would be set aside by God for Divine Service. 

[5]Commentaries like Rabbeinu Bachaya on 27:19, op. cit. Kum Na Sheva; RaShI, RaMBaN, MaLBIM on 27:21 point out that Yitzchak’s suspicions were raised not only by the timbre of Yaakov’s voice, but also the manner in which he spoke, which was distinct from the vocabulary ordinarily used by Eisav. 

[6] Even if one contends that birthrights are not susceptible to sale, this is a strange game to play. At the very least, it suggests that Yaakov was unhappy with his status as second born and was considering means by which his birth order position could be reversed, whether or not this particular sale had any legal significance. 

[7] Although “Ein Mikra Yotzei Midai Peshuto” (no text should be interpreted without first considering its ungarnished, bare meaning), in this case, the redundancy of the phrase “VeChi Achi Aviha Huh” (and that he was the relative of her father) when the text also has him saying about himself that he is the son of Rivka, and therefore obviously the relative of her father, seems to be accounted for by the Rabbinic assumption that Yaakov felt that he could compete with Lavan in terms of cunning and trickiness. Of course, he was mistaken, since he ends up being manipulated into marrying both Leah and Rachel. Yet, if the Rabbinic contention in Megilla 13b that Rachel was the one that undermined the plan in order that Leah not be embarrassed, that would indicate that Yaakov’s plan in and of itself was a good one, and would have succeeded had it not been for unforeseen compassion on the part of Rachel. 

[8] An additional indication that Rivka indeed had summoned Yaakov as she had promised was the presence of Devora, Rivka’s original nursemaid, in Yaakov’s entourage (see RaShI on 35:8). RaShI also quotes the Rabbinic interpretation of the plural form of “crying” in the verse as indicating that not only was Devora mourned, but that word had come that Rivka died at the same time. By implication, had Yaakov returned at the time when Rivka sent for him, he would have had the opportunity to spend quality years with his mother, rather than return following her demise.  

[9] The dots in the Tora text over the word “VaYashkeihu” in 33:4 are subject to two extremely opposite interpretations, i.e., either Eisav was so moved to see his brother after all these years that this was the most sincere of kisses, or the kiss was a pretense for Eisav’s initially attempting, but failing, to do Yaakov in once he got physically close to his brother. See e.g., RaShI, and RaDaK. 

[10] Quoted in Tora Shleima, ed. R. Menachem Kasher, p. 1310, #48. 

[11] Since most people are right-handed, were the idolater to attack the Jew, his sword hand would be furthest from the Jew when he is standing to the Jew’s right. 

[12] The Biblical contexts that are cited to demonstrate how either telling partial truths or even fabricating falsehoods are legitimized by considerations of Shalom Bayit are a) the informing of Avraham of only half of Sara’s reservations regarding why she did not believe that she would be able to conceive (18:12-3) and b) Yosef’s siblings telling him of Yaakov’s alleged death-bed wish that he not avenge himself upon them once his father had died (50:15 ff.—see RaShI, as well as Bava Metzia 87a).

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