Give truth to Yaakov, loving-kindness to Avraham…” (Micah 7:20), the prophet Micha asks of God, and thus, in kabbalistic literature, Avraham comes to represent the attribute of chesed, loving-kindness, while Yaakov represents the attribute of emet, truth. While it is not at all difficult to see how Avraham is associated with loving-kindness – witness his welcoming of the angelic guests – it is quite challenging to see Yaakov as embodying the principle of truth. Whether in his dealings with Esav – exploiting Esav’s weariness to purchase the right of the firstborn, and misrepresenting himself as Esav to his father – or in his dealings with Lavan, and his use of striped rods to affect the coloration of the sheep – Yaakov seems to be a person who is, at times blatantly dishonest, and at times a schemer and certainly a less than trustworthy character. How can we come to terms with Yaakov’s character? Where is the attribute of truth?
Two approaches are possible. One is to find a way to read the stories so that Yaakov is acting truthfully and faithfully. The other is to see that Yaakov does not start out as a man of truth, but actually transforms into one. The first approach is that of Rashi. The famous Rashi on the verse “I am Esav your firstborn” – “I am the one who is bringing you food, and Esav is your firstborn.” – is representative of Rashi’s approach throughout these stories. Thus, in the story of the purchase of the birthright, Rashi tells us that Esav was conceived second and not deserving of the firstborn, the truly deceitful one who was constantly duping his father, a murderer, an idolater, and a glutton. Such a person was not deserving of the right of the firstborn, and even realized this himself, and thus made a calm, rational decision that Yaakov was the one who truly deserved it.
The problem with this approach is that while it protects our idealized image of Yaakov, it does violence not only to the pshat of the text, but also to the very principle of emet. If Yaakov acted correctly, then a person in his or her own life can live by Rashi’s principle of “I am / Esav [is] your first born.” One can misrepresent oneself, as long as the words are (somehow) technically true (remember, “It depends what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”?). One can engage in deceitful acts, as long as one is doing it for the right reason, and certainly if the person being deceived is a bad person. And so we find that Rashi tells us that when Yaakov declared that he was Lavan’s “brother”, he was saying: “If he is a good person, I will be truthful with him, but if he is a deceitful man, I am his brother [and will match him] in deceit.” This, I believe, is not the lesson that we want to be learning from Yaakov or these stories.
The alternative is to see Yaakov as initially flawed, and more so as someone who grows in the process. Dr. David Berger has already noted in his wonderful essay, “On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemic and Exegesis,” that when the Bible was accepted as God’s word, it was Jacob’s character – and through him, the character of the Jewish people – that needed to be defended against the Christian critics. However, once the Bible’s divine nature was challenged, and its morality brought into question, commentators protected the Torah’s moral integrity by reading the stories, and particularly those in our parsha, as critical of Yaakov. For us, we can say that our sensitivity to pshat and our desire to protect the value of the principle of truthfulness, also demands such a reading.
Yaakov starts off as deceitful, but then he grows. How do we see this in our parsha?
Perhaps the first thing to note is that after the opening and powerful scene of the ladder and the angels, the first story of Yaakov in Lavan’s country is one which shows Yaakov not as a man of deceit, but as a man with a strong work ethic, who understands the seriousness of one’s obligation to his employer. “And he said, behold the day is still long, it is not yet time to gather in the sheep, water the sheep and return to your shepherding.” (Breishit 29:7). Perhaps, the cynical person will say, Yaakov is good at moralizing to others, but does not himself follow his own teaching. The end of the parsha shows that the opposite is the case. “These twenty years that I am with you, your sheep and your goats did not miscarry, and the rams of your flock I did not eat. A torn animal I never brought to you – I would bear the loss… By day scorching heat consumed me, and bitter cold at night.” He says all of this to Lavan, knowing that he will not be contradicted, for he was the most trustworthy employee one could ever hope for, going even beyond his legal obligations (see Shemot 22:12). Yaakov is someone who works hard and faithfully, never taking off time, or helping himself to some office supplies. How many of us – and in particular those of us who are so quick to criticize his other actions – could say the same thing of ourselves? In these stories he unquestionably represents honesty and faithfulness, and it is Lavan who “switches his fee a hundred times”.
So what about his lying and his deceit in the other stories? I believe that Yaakov’s struggle with emet was not when it came to the everyday occurrences, nor even when it came to sacrificing of his time or effort, or even money for the sake of truthfulness. No. His struggle with emet was when there were no alternatives, and the thing had to be done. This was the episode with Yitzchak’s blessing, and it is for this that he is punished – and learns his lesson – in the house of Lavan. For after working seven years for Rachel, he wakes in the morning to discover that he has married Leah. “This is not the way we act here,” says Lavan, “to give the younger one before the older one.” Perhaps, he is saying, that is how you acted back in Canaan, but here we do things right. Yaakov has been punished measure for measure, and learns that deceit begets deceit. If one benefits from deceit, then ultimately one will pay the price. Even if there is no alternative, one must do the right thing and trust in God that all will work out for the best.
And this lesson is repeated with the sheep. Yaakov does not act deceitfully. As we have seen, it is Lavan who constantly changes the agreement, and it is Yaakov who meets the deceit with uncompromised honesty. But, with that, he was still scheming. He tried to rig the results by placing striped rods in front of the sheep when they copulated. Many people are bothered by this story, because it seems to indicate that the Torah believes that this scheme actually changed the physical characteristics of the sheep. I believe that the story is telling us the opposite. For when the angel appears to Yaakov, as we hear in his speech to Rachel and Leah, the angel tells him, “Behold all the he-goats mounting the flocks are ringed, speckled, and checkered, for I have seen all that Lavan is doing to you.” (31:12). The angel was effectively saying: “It is not your trick that did it, it was I – the angel – who was ensuring that the right cross-breeding took place. It was I that ensured that the outcome would be to your benefit.” And Yaakov learns this lesson, for he tells Lavan at the end, that were it not for God watching over him, he would have been left empty handed. Not only was the striped rod trick ineffectual, but it would not have done any good regardless, since the terms of the agreement were constantly changing.
In the end, the lesson is clear. Honesty is not a situational ethic. If one is a paragon of honesty, then one not only is fully faithful to his employer, is scrupulously honest in day-to-day events, even at the cost of his own time, money, and effort, but one is also honest even when there is much to be lost. If you engage in dishonesty in such cases, you will get your comeuppance, and regardless, it will often prove ineffectual. Deceit breeds deceit, and you are just as likely to be the one who is cheated. One must never compromise his or her honesty, and trust in God that all will turn out for the better. “Give truth to Yaakov and loving kindness to Avraham as you have sworn to our fathers in the days of old.” If we live up to the highest standard of honesty, the honesty that was given, was taught, to Yaakov, then we will be deserving of the God’s loving-kindness, and of God’s protection.