Masters and Servants - The "Chaff" of the Avot
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
"I AM ESAV YOUR ELDEST"
One of the seminal stories in B'resheet occupies the latter half of last
week’s Parashah: Ya'akov's successful "masquerade" by which he gains
Yitzhak's primary blessing, the one which he (apparently) intended to grant
There are many profound and significant issues raised in this narrative,
including (but not limited to):
a) Why did Yitzhak only "have" one B'rakhah to give, such that when the
real Esav showed up, he seemed to be "out of B'rakhot";
b) Why does a B'rakhah given to the "wrong person" have any validity;
c) Was Yitzhak really unaware of who the recipient was,
d) Why did Yitzhak request venison, prepared according to his taste, in
advance of the B'rakhah?
e) What are we to make of the exclamation: "The voice is the voice of
Ya'akov but the hands are the hands of Esav"
f) What is the relationship between the pair of B'rakhot relating to the
"fat of the land" (27:28-29 and 27:39-40) and the Avrahamic blessing clearly
intended for Ya'akov (28:3-4).
We will not investigate any of these (except, perhaps, tangentially);
instead, we will focus on both the roots and the results of Ya'akov's
masquerade (including Rivkah's role in this deception). When Ya'akov dressed
up in hairy clothes, brought goat-meat seasoned (by Rivkah) to taste like
venison and declared "I am Esav, your eldest", he successfully received the
blessing which was evidently intended for Esav. This act of cunning
(*Mirmah*) had both early roots in the Avrahamic family - and significant
and powerful ramifications within the Ya'akovian clan.
In this analysis, we will endeavor to discover the origins of this type of
behavior (and various analogues), along with identifying the difference
between appropriate (and morally justified) utilization of these traits and
the unacceptable excesses which are found in some of the less savory
characters in Sefer B'resheet.
By way of introduction, I'd like to pose a question on a well-known - but
not well-understood - Midrash.
At the beginning of the Bikkurim recitation, the worshipper avows: "My
father was a wandering Aramean" (D'varim 26:56). All "p'shat-driven"
commentaries identify this "father" as either Avraham or Ya'akov; both of
whom were wanderers and both came from Aram (although Ya'akov was not born
there, that was the terminus of his wandering). The well-known Midrash
which introduces one of the two core sections of the Haggadah, identifies
this "Aramean" as Lavan, Rivkah's brother and Ya'akov's father-in-law. (In
order to do this, the Midrash must change the grammatical sense of *Oved*,
but we'll save that for another essay).
What is the connection between our wandering father (Avraham or Ya'akov) and
Lavan? Why would we possibly want to substitute Lavan for one of the Avot?
In order to answer this, we'll have to investigate the chain of events
leading up to - and resulting from - Ya'akov's successful deception of Yitzhak.
*MIRMAH* IN AVRAHAM'S FAMILY
What is the earliest example of deception in Avraham's family? Although the
Midrash suggests such behavior on the part of Haran in Avraham's pre-Aliyah
days (see B'resheet Rabbah 38:13) , the T'nakh itself presents the first
episode near the beginning of the Avraham narrative:
[as Avraham and Sarah are about to enter Egypt:] "Say, I beg you, that you
are my sister; that it may be well with me for your sake; and my soul shall
live because of you." (12:13)
This scene is, of course, repeated in Avraham's later sojourn to Philistine
And Avraham said of Sarah his wife, "She is my sister"; and Avimelekh king
of Gerar sent, and took Sarah. (20:2)
Unlike his interaction with Pharaoh, Avraham provides a defense for his
"And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not
the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And it came to pass, when
God caused me to wander from my father's house, that I said to her, 'This is
your kindness which you shall show to me; at every place where we shall
come, say of me, "He is my brother".' " (20:12-13)
Avraham held that deception in such a case was not only ethically defensible
- it was a moral obligation (in order to preserve life - his own). This
position was validated by God Himself in the interaction with Sarah
regarding her reaction to the tidings of the miracle birth of Yitzhak:
Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, "After I am grown old shall
I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" (18:12)
[yet, when God raises this with Avraham, He only says:]
And YHVH said to Avraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I indeed bear
a child, now that I am old ' ? " (v. 13)
The Gemara is sensitive to this shift and notes:
One may modify a statement in the interests of peace...at the School of R.
Yishma'el it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its
sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it
is written, "My lord being old", while afterwards it is written, "And I am
old". (BT Yevamot 65b)
In other words, God Himself misled Avraham, omitting Sarah's concerns about
his age, in order to maintain peace in the household (*Shalom Bayit*). If
so, it was certainly appropriate for Avraham to mislead Pharaoh and
Avimelekh - in order to protect himself - about the nature of his
relationship with Sarah. [I refer to this as "misleading" or "deceptive" as
opposed to "lying" since, as we see from Avraham's defense, his story was
not untrue - it was just (significantly) incomplete].
We find one more instance of "modifying words" in the Avraham narrative -
although it isn't Avraham himself who does so.
WHAT HAPPENED...AND ELIEZER'S VERSION
Chapter 24, the longest chapter in B'resheet (and the core of last week's
Parashah), is the story of Eliezer's mission to find a wife for Yitzhak.
[Although the text does not refer to him by name, instead calling him "the
slave of Avraham" - which is relevant to our analysis, Rabbinic tradition
identifies him with the Eliezer mentioned in 15:2. For the sake of brevity,
we will utilize this identification here.]
This story is presented in a loquacious manner; first we are told about
Avraham's oath, administered to Eliezer (vv. 2-9); then we hear about
Eliezer's trip to Aram and his prayer at the well (10-14); immediately,
Rivkah comes out and proves to be the realization of that prayer (15-25).
Subsequently, the slave is brought to her house (26-33) and he retells the
entire story, beginning with some background about himself, Avraham, Sarah
and Yitzhak (34-36), repeating the terms of the oath (37-41), retelling the
story of his prayer (42-44), and retelling Rivkah's kindness to him and his
Why is this story repeated? Rashi (v. 42), quoting the Midrash (B'resheet
Rabbah 60:8), notes that "the idle chatter of the slaves of the Patriarchal
homes is dearer than the Torah of their children", but does not explain why
this is the case.
Nearly all classical commentators (Acharonim as well as Rishonim - including
Rashi himself), note the repetition of Avraham's oath and of the interaction
between Eliezer and Rivkah at the well, pointing to one or more of the
variations between the versions. For example, Rashi notes that even though
Eliezer gave her the jewelry before finding out her name or family:
And it came to pass, as the camels finished drinking, that the man took a
golden ear ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of
ten shekels weight of gold; And said, "Whose daughter are you?" (vv. 22-23;
note, however, Ramban at v. 22);
Eliezer's report was a bit different:
"And she hurried, and let down her water jar from her shoulder, and said,
'Drink, and I will give your camels drink also'; so I drank, and she made
the camels drink also. And I asked her, and said, 'Whose daughter are you?'
And she said, 'The daughter of Betu'el, Nahor's son, whom Milcah bore to
him'; and I put the ear ring on her face, and the bracelets on her hands."
Rashi explains that Eliezer modified his words so that the wouldn't "catch
him in his words, saying 'Why did you give these to her before you knew who
she was?' ".
[Interested readers are directed to the Netziv and Malbim for fascinating
analyses of the variations between the Torah narrative and Eliezer's version.]
In sum, we find that Avraham (and members of his household), utilized their
words judiciously when there was a life-threatening situation or when there
was an overriding interest at stake - which was not self-directed.
According to the Midrash, Eliezer was interested in the failure of his
mission, as he wanted to have his own daughter marry Yitzhak; in any case,
it wasn't his own interests which were being promoted via his altered
Perhaps this is why Eliezer is referred to, throughout Chapter 24 (where he
is one of the two central figures) as *Eved Avraham*, rather than by name;
it is truly his ability to utilize this skill learned in Avraham's household
which assists in the success of his mission.
BACK TO YA'AKOV
In addressing the focal story of our Parashah - the "masquerade", we have to
take two things into account:
1) Rivkah, who was the force behind the deception, was privy to information
about her sons which, evidently, she did not share with Yitzhak:
And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, If it be so,
why am I thus? And she went to inquire of YHVH. And YHVH said to her, "Two
nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your
bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the
elder shall serve the younger." (25:22-23) Ya'akov was destined to rule over
Esav - to which end she wanted to ensure that he received the preferred
blessing. (Again, it is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze the role
of these blessings in family position and power).
2) Rivkah was the sister of Lavan, the master deceiver. Note how the
Midrash comments on her identification, at the beginning of our Parashah, as
"the daughter of Betu'el the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister to Lavan the
This teaches that her father was a deceiver (a play on the close
relationship between the word *Rama'i* meaning "deceiver" and *Arami* -
"Aramean"), her brother was a deceiver and the people in her locale were
like that, and this righteous woman came out from there. (B'resheet Rabbah 63:4)
It is not surprising that Rivkah utilized this talent to ensure that the
Divine Mandate - Ya'akov receiving the favored blessing - took place. This
was certainly not a case of self-interest, as the result of this deception
was Ya'akov's forced exile for twenty years; according to the Midrash,
Ya'akov never saw his beloved mother again (see Rashi at 35:8).
It is prudent to point out that Yitzhak also engaged in this type of
behavior - once:
And Yitzhak lived in Gerar; And the men of the place asked him about his
wife; and he said, "She is my sister"; for he feared to say, She is my wife;
lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rivkah; because she
was pretty to look upon. (26:6-7)
Although Yitzhak was prepared to act deceitfully in a situation similarly
dangerous to those of his father, Rivkah was still able to mislead him
(twice - look carefully at 27:42-46). Why wasn't Yitzhak more attuned to guile?
*VAYAGOR* AND *VAYESHEV*
In Avraham's defense of his misleading Avimelekh, there is a phrase which
may clarify something about the Avot and those rare circumstances when they
were prepared to act deceptively:
And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father's house,
that I said to her, 'This is your kindness which you shall show to me; at
every place where we shall come, say of me, "He is my brother".' ";
In other words, Avraham was only willing to act this way when he was in a
state of wandering. The natural vulnerability experienced by the stranger
necessitates the occasional use of deception to survive (witness the
thousands of Jews who were saved by forged papers, sham marriages, made-up
adoptions etc. while escaping the horrors of the Sho'ah).
Note that roughly half of Avraham's post-Lekh-L'kha life was lived "on the
run" (see this year's shiur on Parashat Vayera); nevertheless, the only two
incidents of deception were in specific "traveling" situations - in Egypt
and G'rar. Similarly, Eliezer was a stranger in Aram when he spoke so
"carefully" - and this was the case with Yitzhak, who only deceived once:
When he was in G'rar and afraid for his life.
Once Yitzhak - who was the only one of the Avot who was "settled" during
most of his life - was back home, there was no need to operate in this fashion.
It took Rivkah, who, like Avraham, (see last year's shiur on Hayyei Sarah)
was a transplant in K'na'an and who had the inside information on Ya'akov
and Esav, to set up the necessary circumstances to successfully deceive
Yitzhak into giving Ya'akov the blessing.
Let's take a quick look at several later incidents of *Mirmah* in the family
1) Ya'akov's entire relationship with his uncle and father-in-law was one of
deceit - Lavan cheated Ya'akov out of his promised wife (Rachel) and then,
changed his salary ten times:
"Thus have I been twenty years in your house; I served you fourteen years
for your two daughters, and six years for your cattle; and you have changed
my wages ten times." (41:31)
Yet, our Rabbis note that there is an affinity between Lavan and Ya'akov:
And Ya'akov told Rachel that he was her father's brother, and that he was
Rivkah's son; (29:12) - In deception, "he was her father's brother"; In
righteousness, "he was Rivkah's son". (B'resheet Rabbah 70:13)
The Rabbis take this affinity even further and note that Lavan's behavior
was something of a "payback" to Ya'akov for his deception:
...all night Ya'akov called "Rachel" and Leah responded; in the morning:
"Behold she was Leah". He said to her: "O deceptive one daughter of a
deceptive one: All night didn't I call Rachel and you responded?" Leah
answered: "Is there a barber without students? (i.e. even the best barber
needs a student who will cut his hair; likewise:) Didn't your father cry
out 'Esav' and you responded?" (ibid. 70:19) (more on this a bit later)
2) When Ya'akov returns to Eretz K'na'an, following Avraham's footsteps, his
first stop is Sh'khem. The terrible events which occurred there can be
found in Chapter 34 - but note how Ya'akov's sons (all born in Aram!) respond:
And the sons of Ya'akov answered Sh'khem and Hamor his father deceitfully
(*b'Mirmah*, and said, [because he had defiled Dinah their sister]; And they
said to them, "We can not do this thing, to give our sister to one who is
uncircumcised; for that would be a reproach to us; But in this will we
consent to you; If you will be as we are, that every male of you be
circumcised; Then will we give our daughters to you, and we will take your
daughters for us, and we will live with you, and we will become one people."
The problems inherent in this Parashah are many; note, however, Ya'akov's
protest against his sons' behavior:
And Ya'akov said to Shim'on and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me to
make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the K'na'ani and the
P'rizi; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me,
and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house." (34:30)
In other words, acting deceitfully as a tactic - when justified - is only
acceptable when in a temporary place (e.g. Egypt, G'rar, Eliezer in Aram or
Ya'akov at Yitzhak's knee); but you must maintain a reputation for
forthrightness among the inhabitants of the land (*Yoshev ha'Aretz*).
Although space limitations mitigate against continuing here, I'd like to use
the information presented up to this point to suggest an answer to our
question about the Midrash on *Arami Oved Avi* -
When Avraham and Ya'akov were wandering (exactly the meaning of the verse),
they had to utilize a survival tactic which was morally correct and
ethically justified - but only for those circumstances. That behavior -
deceit - was personified in one Biblical character - Lavan. Whereas Avraham
and Ya'akov (and, in one case, Yitzhak) _used_ deceit, Lavan _was_ deceit.
Hence, Lavan is the truest example of *Arami Oved Avi* - even in the comfort
of home, even when faced with nothing more than the possible gain of a few
dollars, he behaved in a way only acceptable for survival - and, then, only
There are two additional points relating to this issue which we must address:
a) How do we understand the unpleasant (to say the least) consequences of
"justified deceit" which weave their way through the rest of Sefer B'resheet
(and, in a more Midrashic vein, through the rest of Jewish History)? If
Ya'akov was justified in masquerading as Esav in order to deceive Yitzhak
and gain the premier B'rakhah, why does it bear such a heavy personal and
historic cost (as we will see further on)?
b) How is it that Lavan is related to Ya'akov? How can Esav be the son of
Yitzhak? In other words, why do the great and grand Patriarchs and
Matriarchs of our holy nation give birth to such antagonistic characters and
have the dubious honor of kinship with the likes of Lavan?
THE "TRAIL OF DECEPTION"
The Mishna (Sotah 1:7) states: "According to one's behavior, they (Heaven)
behave with him." This kind of retribution is known as *Midah k'Neged Midah*
(measure for measure).
This is nowhere exemplified as clearly and consistently in our literature as
in the book of B'resheet. The same Lavan who fooled Ya'akov into marrying
Leah and then working another 7 years for Rachel was fooled by that same
Rachel when she stole his idols. The same Ya'akov who deceived his father in
the dark was deceived in the dark when he thought that his new bride was
Rachel. Note the comment of the Midrash we cited last week:
...all night Ya'akov called "Rachel" and Leah responded; in the morning:
"Behold she was Leah". He said to her: "O deceptive one daughter of a
deceptive one: All night didn't I call Rachel and you responded?" Leah
answered: "Is there a barber without students? (i.e. even the best barber
needs a student who will cut his hair; likewise:) Didn't your father cry out
'Esav' and you responded?" (B'resheet Rabbah 70:19)
I'd like to outline the "trail of deception" which dogs the family of
Ya'akov throughout Sefer B'resheet. Since we already dealt with the
"modified words" of Avraham, his servant and his son, Yitzhak in part I
(last week), we'll begin with Ya'akov himself:
a. Yitzhak is deceived by Ya'akov who is prompted and aided by Rivkah (Ch. 27)
b. Yitzhak is deceived by Rivkah, who claims that she wants to send Ya'akov
away for marriage purposes (when it's really to save his life - 27:46)
c. Lavan fools Ya'akov into marrying Leah before Rachel - thus getting her
married off and gaining 7 more "free" years of labor from Ya'akov (29:23-27)
d. Rachel lies to her father about the idols she stole from his house (31:19)
e. Lavan manipulates Ya'akov's wages "ten times" (31:41)
f. Ya'akov misleads Esav about his plans to join him in Se'ir (33:14)
g. The sons of Ya'akov dupe the citizens of Sh'khem into a mass circumcision
- and then pillage the town in revenge for the rape of Dinah (34:13)
h.The brothers fool their father into thinking that Yoseph has been killed
by an animal (37:31)
i. Tamar fools Yehudah into thinking that she is a *K'deshah* (38:14-15)
j. Potiphar's wife lies to her husband, getting Yoseph thrown into the court
k. Yoseph maintains his disguise with his brothers, not revealing their
relationship until Yehudah's bold stand (44:18-34)
l. Yoseph (evidently) has his brothers lie to Pharaoh about their livelihood
m. The brothers (apparently) lie to Yoseph about Ya'akov's deathbed wishes
"MEASURE FOR MEASURE"
In the spirit of the Midrash quoted above - and following the notion of
*Midah k'Neged Midah*, it seems clear that at least some of these episodes
of deception are causally interrelated. As promised in last week's essay, we
will find that the impact of some of these acts was felt well beyond the
chronological parameters of B'resheet - to the furthest ends of Biblical
" 'When Esav heard his father's words' (27:34): R. Hanina said: Anyone who
claims that God totally forgoes debts will himself be lost; rather, He waits
patiently and collects that which is His. In recompense for the one cry that
Ya'akov caused Esav to cry out, as it says: 'When Esav heard his father's
words, he cried out', he was punished. Where was he punished? In Shushan, as
it says: 'And [Mordechai] cried a great and bitter cry' (Esther 4:1)
(B'resheet Rabbah 67:4)
Before examining the reason behind this causal relationship, I'd like to
demonstrate that that relationship indeed exists within these particular
instances within Sefer B'resheet.
a) We have already seen that Ya'akov's masquerade was linked, in the
Midrash, to Lavan's successful deception regarding his daughters. Besides
the additional, far-reaching impact felt in the days of Mordechai and
Esther, this seems to have set Ya'akov up for not properly recognizing the
nature of the relationships between his sons, leading to the Yoseph tragedy.
Note how the same animal used to fool Yitzhak into thinking he was eating
venison ("for the taste of goat meat is similar to that of venison" - Rashi
at 27:9) is used to replicate human blood on Yoseph's tunic ("[goat's] blood
is similar to that of a human" Rashi at 37:31).
[Parenthetically, and this is an important caveat for the whole topic, we
see the Yoseph story as tragic - even though it is not necessarily tragic
from every perspective. As Yoseph himself states: "But as for you, you
thought evil against me; but God meant it to good, to bring to pass, as it
is this day, to save much people alive." (50:20) In other words, even though
the sale of Yoseph was a tragedy from an internal family perspective, it was
a component of salvation and necessary history from the Divine perspective.
See B'resheet Rabbah 85:1 - "the tribes were engaged in the sale of Yoseph,
Yoseph was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Re'uven was engaged in his
sackcloth and fasting, Ya'akov was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting,
Yehudah was engaged in finding himself a wife - and haKadosh Barukh Hu was
engaged in creating the light of the anointed king (David).]
b) The direct result of Rivkah's "official version" of the reason to send
Ya'akov away (to find a wife) is that Esav married into Yishma'el's family
(28:8-9). Note Rashbam's comments here: "Esav thought that it was on account
of his marrying K'na'ani daughters that Ya'akov successfully stole the
blessing of Avraham from me. He married the daughter of Yishma'el from the
family of Avraham, thinking that now he will merit the legacy of Avraham."
In other words, Rivkah's misleading statement regarding the reason for
sending Ya'akov away motivated Esav to erroneously think that he could get
the favored blessing by following that directive in his next marriage.
c) This one is somewhat obvious: By fooling Ya'akov into marrying Leah, The
order of Shivtei Kah was inverted so that the eldest was not the son of
Rachel, which led to all of the inter-fraternal troubles in Ya'akov's family
(especially regarding Yoseph).
The Midrash explicit links the deception of that fateful night with the
deception practiced by the brothers on their father regarding Yoseph's
"disappearance". (B'resheet Rabbah 84:10).
In addition, this one night of deception (in which both Rachel and Leah were
complicit) also kept Ya'akov from returning to K'na'an for anywhere between
7 and 13 years (7 which he worked for Rachel and 6 which he worked to make
his own fortune).
d) Rachel's lie to her father regarding the idols: Note how Ya'akov
unwittingly curses his beloved Rachel: "With whom you will find your gods,
let him not live. Before our brothers point out what is yours with me, and
take it with you. For Ya'akov knew not that Rachel had stolen them."
(31:32). Rashi (ad loc.) cites the Midrash which points to this statement as
the curse which led to Rachel's tragic death.
e) This is actually the "odd man out" on the list; whereas the other
instances are exactly that - instances - this is a record of ongoing behavior.
f) Ya'akov implies that he will follow Esav to Se'ir (although note Ramban's
approach at 33:14). Hazal seem to be bothered by this promise, as it is
clear that Ya'akov didn't intend to go to Se'ir at all. As such, they
interpret it as a "long-range" promise; Ya'akov will fulfill it in the
messianic era: "And saviors shall ascend Mount Tziyyon to judge the Mount of
Esav; and the kingdom shall be YHVH's." (Ovadiah 21) There doesn't seem to
be a negative repercussion to this misleading statement anywhere throughout
B'resheet or later Biblical history.
g) The deception of Sh'khem has implications both forward and backward in
history. The first place where Avraham set up an altar when he entered the
Land was Sh'khem (12:6); Rashi notes that he prayed there for the welfare of
his great-grandchildren who would fight at that place. More significantly,
Sh'khem is the location where the brothers cast Yoseph into the pit, which
is (as noted above) an act tied up in deception. (Note BT Sanhedrin 102a
where this connection is made, albeit linked to the rape, not the deception).
h) The deception of Ya'akov by his sons, which, as we have pointed out, is
the consequence of Ya'akov's deception, becomes the next causal link in the
chain: When the brothers sent Yoseph's tunic, covered with goat's blood, to
father Ya'akov, they declared: "This have we found; *Haker Na* (discern, I
beg you) whether it is your son's coat or not" (37:32).
When Yehudah (generally assumed to be the one who engineered that deception;
see 37:26-27) was fooled by Tamar, she revealed herself with that selfsame
phrase: "When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying,
'By the man, whose these are, am I with child; and she said, *Haker Na*
(Discern, I beg you), whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and
staff.' " (38:25)
The Gemara ties these two together in the context (and within the discussion
of) *Midah k'Neged Midah*:
" 'Discern, I pray thee'. R. Hama b. Hanina said: With the word 'discern'
[Yehudah] made an announcement to his father, and with the word 'discern' an
announcement was made to him. With the word 'discern' he made an
announcement : 'Discern now whether it be thy son's coat or not'; and with
the word 'discern' an announcement was made to him : 'Discern, I pray thee,
whose are these'." (BT Sotah 10b)
i) Tamar's successful deception actually bears fruit (pun intended) which is
all positive - but, keep in mind that Yehudah being fooled in this story is
the result (as the Midrash attests) of his role in an earlier deception.
j) Although this is not, strictly speaking, within the context of the
Ya'akovan family, there is an interesting consequence to Mrs. Potiphar's
duplicitous behavior: Yoseph, whom she so desired, marries her daughter
(41:45). Although one could argue that this is the "next best thing" for her
- at least her daughter is married to Yoseph - from a perspective of T'nakh
law, it is the one marriage which renders a future relationship with Yoseph
out of reach. By lying and sending Yoseph to jail, she catalyzed a sequence
of events which led to his marriage to her daughter - and her permanent
relegation to the role of mother-in-law.
k) The Midrash Tanhuma (Vayyigash #3) makes a startling observation: All of
Yoseph's glory was overshadowed by Yehudah (ultimately, "Mashiach ben
Yoseph" will be outlived and overshadowed by "Mashiach ben David" from
Yehudah). The Midrash seems to link this with the comparison of Yoseph's
deception as against Yehudah's forthright stand in his plea for Binyamin. In
any case, at this point in B'resheet, most of the episodes are on the
"result" end of the chain and Yoseph's behavior is the direct outgrowth of
the brothers' deception of their father as noted above.
l) This ploy had an unintended but tragic result: By convincing Pharaoh that
the brothers were all shepherds, he located them together in Goshen. This
was, admittedly, Yoseph's goal - to keep the family together. Several
generations later, however, this made the Egyptian oppression that much
easier to enforce: The children of Ya'akov were now identifiable as "them"
(as against "us") - and their "Goshen ghetto" conditions certainly didn't
help in this regard.
m) This last lie is an interesting one. Although not clearly bound within
the causal chain which we have identified, it is enlightening and
informative from another perspective. The Midrash (D'varim Rabbah 5:14)
Resh Lakish said: Great is peace, for the Torah reported false words in
order to establish peace between Yoseph and his brothers. When their father
died, they became afraid lest Yoseph take vengeance from them. What did they
say? "Your father commanded, before his death, saying: 'Thus shall you say
to Yoseph [Forgive, I beg you now, the trespass of your brothers, and their
sin; for they did to you evil]; '" and we never find that Ya'akov commanded
this, rather, Scripture stated false words for the sake of peace.
In other words, here we find a second example of Divine validation of the
questionable behavior which sits at the core of this analysis. As noted last
week, God Himself reported inaccurate information to Avraham in order to
spare his feelings - and, here, at the end of B'resheet, we find that the
Torah validates untrue words which, again, come to promote *Shalom Bayit*.
We have noted an intricate series of deceptions orchestrated by or against
members of Ya'akov's family. We have pointed to Midrashic or scriptural
connections which seem to bind them together in a causal sequence.
At this point, we are, perhaps, more aware of the tangled web which is woven
throughout the Sefer - but are no wiser as to how to understand it. Our two
original questions remain unanswered:
a) If Ya'akov's behavior in following his mother's advice and masquerading
in order to gain the B'rakhah intended for Esav was justified, why are there
such horrible and far-reaching consequences? [If it was not justified, then
we have to understand how God could reward and support a blessing gained
under the shadow of a crime. We will take the position that his behavior was
just and justified - and perhaps leave the other lemma for another discussion.]
b) How do we distinguish between Lavan and Ya'akov? Why are we proud to
carry the names of *Beit Ya'akov* and *B'nei Yisra'el*, yet shudder at the
name of Lavan?
JUSTIFIED, BUT NEVERTHELESS...
Regarding our first question, we can find the answer in a broad area of
Halakhah: Hilkhot Sh'gagot. The Torah mandates that if a person sins
unknowingly, in such a manner that he either wasn't aware of all of the
facts (this really is a piece of *Helev*) or of the law, he must, upon
finding out that it was a violation, bring an expiation offering - a Korban
Hatat. Why must he bring such an offering? We find an even further
expression of this: A person who is guilty of manslaughter, with absolutely
no harm intended, is obligated to go into exile at one of the cities of
refuge. The Gemara (BT Makkot 10b) understands that this exile is a form of
expiation - but from what evil act does he need cleansing?
A full treatment of this issue is well beyond the space allotted for this
shiur; suffice it to say that Rabbinic literature, Talmudic as well as
post-Talmudic, addresses this issue comprehensively. The many answers are
all forms of saying the same thing: That which we do, even unintentionally,
leaves a stain on who we are. By way of example, a person could be kidnapped
and kept in seclusion with dastardly people for a number of months - clearly
against his will. Nevertheless, the time that he spends in the company of
these criminals will almost assuredly affect him - his values, how he spends
his time, his language and so on. Even though he never meant to share the
space of these felons, the reality is that the environment they generate is
noxious - and he must, perforce, breathe that same poisonous air.
An example of this is the Halakhah (BT Berakhot 32b) that a Kohen who
commits manslaughter may never again perform the Birkat Kohanim, based on
the verse: "Your hands are full of blood" (Yeshaya 1:15).This holds even if
the killing was unintentional - his hands are stained, nonetheless.
When Ya'akov deceived his father, he was following his mother's advice,
based on a prophecy she received about his destiny. Although his act was
justified (see above), it left its mark. He was forced to dip into the world
of deception in order to gain what was his by Divine fiat; yet, that descent
left its mark and the consequences were felt for the ages. In other words,
just because an act is permissible or, better yet, the proper response to a
given situation, does not absolve the actor of the consequences of that act.
Ya'akov continued the justified and successful manipulation of the truth
within the family - but he paid a dear price for it for many years.
YA'AKOV AND LAVAN
And now we come to our final question - how do we distinguish between
Ya'akov and Lavan? What gives Ya'akov a higher moral ground?
Perhaps the Midrash, once again, will enlighten and help resolve:
" 'And Haman said in his heart (Esther 6:6)' Wicked people are enslaved to
their hearts; 'Esav said in his heart' (B'resheet 27:41)...but the righteous
are the masters of their hearts, as it says: 'And Hannah was speaking to her
heart' (Sh'muel I 1:13)...and they are similar to their Creator: 'YHVH said
to His heart'. (B'resheet 8:21)" (Esther Rabbah 10:3)
When we note all of the instances where Avraham, his servant, Yitzhak,
Rivkah, Ya'akov and Yoseph lied - it was always for an overriding cause, one
which was not motivated by self-interest. Ya'akov had more to lose (his
life) by deceiving his father to gain the B'rakhah; Yoseph had much to gain
by immediately revealing himself to his father etc. Those instances where we
understand the act to be morally justified are when a righteous person, in
control of his own moral rudder, utilizes deception to promote an overriding
good (such as preservation of life, Shalom Bayit or the fulfillment of a
Lavan is a very different creature; he is not just "more deceptive"; as
pointed out last week, he _is_ deception. In other words, whereas Ya'akov is
a free man, able to use deception when warranted, Lavan is shackled by his
own deceiving heart.
How do we know the difference? What is the litmus test of "appropriate"
Note that the Avot never used it for self-promotion or gain; Lavan's
deception was always for his own financial benefit. Just as the moral high
ground is claimed by the one who has the least to gain from the argument, so
it is held by he who knows how to lie, but will never do so for his own
self-promotion. He will only manipulate words to promote the greater good,
be it familial, communal, national or universal.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.