Yaakov Aveinu is a challenging character – one who is traditionally associated with the quality of emet – titen emet li’Yaakov – but who often seems to more be a person of trickery or deceit. From purchasing the birthright, to stealing the blessing, to using the staves with Lavan’s sheep, he, like his name, works around the truth to get to the desired end result. The Torah, starting with the story of Yaakov’s wives, demonstrates how Yaakov received punishment for his deception, measure for measure. As the younger son, put himself ahead of Esav. This was reversed on him, and he was given the older daughter, Leah, instead of the younger one, Rachel, whom he had worked for. Lavan, for his part, drove home this lesson, “This is not how we act in our place, to give the young one before the older one.” And, because he clothed himself in Esav’s garments, and appeared to be who he was not, so that his father could not recognize him (vi’lo hikiro), in a similar way, he was shown Yosef’s garments, and asked “do you recognize (haker na) whose these are?,” and mourned for many years, believing Yosef to be dead.
Yaakov, then, receives punishment for his deception. But did he learn his lesson? Sometimes punishment is just that, punishment. Do we see any evidence that he had learned to deal with his problems head on, and not to seek a sneaky way to achieve his goals? I believe that he did, and that his education began in VaYetze and is demonstrated in this here in Vayishlach. In VaYetze we find that he tried to profit from Lavan’s sheep by a trick with striping the sticks by the water troughs. But, if we read closely, we will find that that trick was not successful. The angel tells him in a dream that he has seen everything that Lavan was doing to him, and that he – the angel -has ensured that the sheep that would be born would be of the type of sheep that – according to the conditions of Yaakov and Lavan’s agreement – would be owned by Yaakov. Why the angel’s help was necessary is clear from the end of the parsha. There, Yaakov tells Lavan that “you have switched my wage 10 (or 100) times.” Lavan was on to Yaakov, and would change the conditions of the agreement after the sheep had copulated. There was no way that any trickery could help at this stage. The only way Yaakov succeeded was because of God’s help. “Were it not for that the God of my father… was with me, you would have now sent me off empty handed” (Breishit 31:42). The lesson that Yaakov has learned is that trickery does not help if the other person is on to you. You are not always dealing with a blind father or a ravenous brother. Even from a pragmatic, and not moral, perspective, trickery can backfire. If one truly wants to succeed, one must rely on God.
It is also important to note that Yaakov may have already learned his lesson to some degree before the visitation from the angel. For the scheme with the staves was not deceit or lying per se. He was playing by the letter of the agreement if not by its spirit. It was not very “cricket of him” to be doing this, but it was not of the same type of deceit that had gone on earlier. And, moreover, Yaakov exemplified an honest and conscientious work ethic in his tending of sheep – one that was clear even in his initial coming to Aram (cf. Breishit 29:7). He is thus entitled to have righteous indignation when Lavan accuses him of stealing, and defiantly proclaims his honesty and his work ethic to Lavan:
This twenty years have I been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried their young, and the rams of your flock have I not eaten.. That which was torn of beasts I brought not to you; I bore the loss of it; of my hand did you require it, whether stolen by day, or stolen by night. Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from my eyes.
So certainly by this time, and perhaps always, Yaakov is a person of a strong work ethic and of honesty. But in his earlier interactions with Esav, and perhaps in his trick with the staves, he has been willing to compromise or fudge that commitment when the price was too high to pay – when he would not have the birthright, not receive his father’s blessing, when he would suffer financially in a significant way.
Thus, at the beginning of our Parsha, it is fitting to ask whether Yaakov has abandoned trickery, not only because it may backfire, and not only when the price is low, but even when such trickery could succeed, and even when the price of abandoning it is quite high? That is, is he committed to honesty – emet – as a moral and ethical principle, never to be compromised? Did he learn that the ends do not justify the means, that regardless of whether we achieve our goals or not, we must always be moral and ethical in our actions?
The answer to this is made clear in the opening of this week’s parsha. Knowing that Esav is coming to greet him with an army of 400 people – perhaps with the intent to wipe him out – Yaakov takes defensive measures but does not resort to any trickery. He splits his camp to limit his losses, he sends gifts appease Esav and to win him over. This is military strategy and diplomacy, but not trickery. He is quite explicit to Esav about his intent with the gift: “And I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes.” (Breishit, 32:6. See also, more explicitly, 32:21, and 33:8). And then he prays. As Rashi states (Breishit 32:9)- he prepared in three ways, for war, through prayer, and with a gift. Yaakov has learned and learned well. Although his life and the life of his family and people are at stake, he does not deceive. He uses all the strategies at his disposal, and he turns to God, because – as he has learned from the angel – it is only God’s help that will ultimately determine his success. And in all this, he is honest – he does not lie and he does not deceive.
The climax of this comes in the dramatic scene of the struggle between Yaakov and the angel. In this struggle, Yaakov fights his enemy head on, and tries no dirty tricks, nothing underhanded. As a result, he is not able to get the upper hand, but he still will not resort to trickery. It is rather the angel, or the “man,” who pulls a Yaakov move:
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the curve of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
It is the angel who, when he cannot win in a fair fight, resorts to an underhanded and sneaky move. He hits Yaakov below the belt. In fact, he hits him in the “curve of the thigh” – a place on the body near, and suggestive of, the “curve” of the foot – the heel, the akev. It is the angel who becomes a Yaakov, and it is Yaakov who becomes Yisrael.
And he said, Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.
He has fought against a superior power, and has not resorted to devious tricks – he has prevailed and his no longer Yaakov, no longer the akev, that seeks the bent and twisted way, but one who fights a fair fight, and who remains straight no matter what. I would even go so far as to suggest that the name Yisrael connotes not only “to strive with God” but – reading the sin as a shin to be yashar, to be straight, not to be an akev, and thus to be a true man of God.
This then is the culmination of Yaakov’s transformation, of Yaakov becoming Yisrael. However, he must still live with the consequences of his past actions. He will be punished in the kidnapping and his many years of mourning that followed. And he will also have to deal with how his past actions have influenced his children and their values. For Reuven and Shimon wipe out the city of Shechem, having lured them into circumcising themselves through deceit – b’mirmah. This same word, mirmah, is what Yaakov uses to challenge Lavan when the sisters are switched – lamah rimitani, why have you deceived me? – and, more significantly, is how Yaakov’s original deceit of Esav is described – bah chicha bi’mirmah, your brother came in deceit. The deceit of Reuven and Shimon is a comeuppance for Yaakov’s past actions – not in the form of a punishment, but in having to live with the real-world consequences. For when we act with deceit, when we act with a philosophy that the ends justify the means, then our children will learn to do likewise. And when Yaakov needs to confront Shimon and Levi for this horrendous deed, he is not able to take the moral high ground. He cannot lecture them about honesty or the ends not justifying the means, because this would come off as mere hypocrisy. All he can do is lecture them about the possible negative consequences of their actions:
And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, You have brought trouble on me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.
To which they are able to respond taking the principled high ground:
And they said, Should he deal with our sister as with a harlot?
Even once he has transformed into Yisrael, he must live with his Yaakov past. He cannot tell them what needs to be said – that there is another principle at stake here, not just family pride, but integrity and morality. He has become Yisrael, but he also remains a Yaakov.
If we begin to live our lives as a Yaakov, we will have to live with the consequences for a long time. The challenge for Yaakov/Yisrael, like the challenge for all of us, is to strive to always live as Yisrael, as Bnei Yisral, to meet our challenges head on, without deceit, without allowing the ends to justify the means. To meet our challenges honestly and straightforwardly, to do so as men and women of God.