Our Lying Patriarch

Toledot By :  Abigail Treu Posted On Oct 21, 2009 / 5770 | Torah Commentary | Social Justice

The evidence stared at us: a hot pink eye embedded in dark skin. “Which one of you did this?” my mother demanded. I, of course, knew the secret, having mashed the Bubbilicious bubble gum into a crack in the dark-stained paneling of our family room some hours earlier. My little sister, trying to be helpful, asked with what I knew to be complete innocence: “Well, what kind of gum is it?” Which was all our mother needed to hear to jump to a conclusion that brought her investigation to its end and my sister to her inevitable reprimand.

My first lie (or at least the first one I got away with), in this case by omission.

It’s a shameful memory that brings me to a question: What if George Washington had decided to lie about chopping down that cherry tree, rather than insisting “I cannot tell a lie”?

Or, to put it differently, what are we to do with a story about a patriarch who lies, cheats, and steals his way through life?

The most egregious instance of Jacob’s less-than-honorable behavior comes in Parashat Tol’dot when, at his mother’s suggestion, he dons a costume; appears before his old, blind father; and uses a lie to steal the blessing intended for his twin brother Esau:

“He [Jacob] went to his father and said, “Father.”
And he [Isaac] said, “Yes, which of my sons are you?”
Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau, your firstborn; I have done as you told me. 
Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your blessing.” (Gen. 27:18–19)

No cherry-tree virtue here. Of course, interpreters throughout the ages have sought to “correct” the story so as to bolster Jacob’s ethical position. Much of it hinges on the exact words uttered by Jacob: “I am Esau, your firstborn; I have done as you told me.” Rashi (in an I-did-not-sleep-with-that-woman approach) tries to get Jacob off on a technicality. What Jacob really meant was, “I [am the one bringing you these things]; Esau [is] your firstborn. I have done [many things] as you told me.” The midrash in Genesis Rabbah 65:18 moves similarly, but with the added bonus of purifying Jacob’s motive: “Rabbi Levi said: I [am the one who will one day receive God’s Commandments; but] Esau is your firstborn.” At least here Jacob isn’t just after the material gains and power contained in Isaac’s blessing, but is imagined to desire God’s word. And the Hasidic Noam Elimelech follows the Zohar’s lead, considering Rebecca’s voice, encouraging Jacob to receive Isaac’s blessing, representing the Shekhinah (God’s Presence), guiding Jacob to do what is necessary for the divine plan of the election of Israel to take place. Far-fetched, but at least it attributes to Jacob the merits of struggling internally over the spiritual cost of receiving Isaac’s blessing.

Bible scholar James Kugel describes the dilemma:

Since Jacob was their people’s immediate founder, Jewish interpreters were naturally interested in celebrating his virtues—and in stressing the faults of his rival, Esau . . . Believing that the purpose of biblical narratives was to present readers with moral exemplars and role models (either positive or negative), interpreters naturally had a tendency to exaggerate the virtues and vices of the people involved. As a result, readers soon came to expect biblical figures to come with a clear label: “altogether righteous” or “completely wicked.” (How to Read the Bible, 137)

But what if we don’t bother trying to defend him? What if we accept that Jacob lied?

In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote of our ability to choose the stories we tell about ourselves: “Among all the things we don’t control,” he wrote on November 10, “we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world.” Having selected, generations ago, a story about a patriarch who lies to his father at the expense of his brother for his own gain, and having selected—in every generation since then, including our own—this year, this week, to retell that story, what do we gain if we accept the story at face value?

What we gain is a mirror. I wonder if our discomfort in reading Jacob’s moral failure here (and elsewhere) is a reflection of the discomfort we feel internally as we struggle with our own morality. We all learned, at some point in life, that we could lie. We all got away with it at some point (in our childhood at least), and had to teach ourselves to refrain from such behavior. Reading the story literally and accepting Jacob’s lie means that we don’t have to pretend that we are all as innocent as George Washington, who “could not tell a lie,” and frees us up to focus inward. Rather than project a holier-than-thou expectation onto Jacob, we can use Parashat Tol’dot as an invitation to scrutinize our own lies and sibling rivalries.

We descend from a patriarch who struggled with his yetzer ha-ra, his own temptations to do wrong. So too, each of us struggles. Reading this story without rushing to defend Jacob reminds us that each of us has the capacity to be a liar and a cheat, or a person of integrity and honor. When we hear of the latest scandal involving a bribe, a swindle, marital infidelity, whichever vice du jour lands on the front pages, we are incensed, indignant. But when we read Tol’dot, we remember—if we choose not to exonerate Jacob—the adjuration of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai (BT Berakhot 28b): “May you fear heaven more than you fear one another.” Each of us is tempted every day in so many ways, and the integrity that comes from a life of honesty is sacred because it is so difficult to achieve.

The important thing is that Jacob outgrows the behavior we see and dislike. By the time he matures into the father of twelve tribes, he has struggled with God and come to the realization that God dwells in “this place” in ways he did not know in his youth. We don’t need to pretend that Jacob never lied; we need to realize that Jacob did lie and cheat, and that he successfully struggled to abandon those behaviors. That is what makes him worthy of being our patriarch.

George Washington may not have told a lie, but most of us have. We were thrown out of Eden to live in the world, and we were given Torah to keep us holy. We choose to tell Jacob’s story because Torah teaches us that we can grow wise over time, that we can learn from our mistakes, and that we are always on the path toward self-improvement and self-refinement. For “its ways are ways of truth, and all its paths are peace.”

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.