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Torah Attitude: Parashas Toldos: The ultimate truth
Jacob's special character trait is truth. It seems as if Jacob 'stole' the blessing from his brother Eisav. It looks like Jacob was not honest in his dealings with Lavan. There are three situations when a person should modify what he says. The Torah requires that in every situation we must clarify what does G'd wants. Sometimes one may change a quotation to avoid bad feelings and to promote peace. There are situations where it is acceptable not to reveal all details in order to preserve modesty and protect privacy. We must take precautions to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our belongings. The ultimate truth obligated Jacob to "steal" the blessing. Jacob made an effort to protect himself when Lavan tried to cheat him. Since G'd would not let Lavan harm Jacob, the ultimate truth required Jacob to outwit Lavan. The ultimate truth includes being resourceful to protect ourselves from harm and to promote peace, as well as to preserve modesty and to protect privacy.
Jacob and truth
Each of our Patriarchs emphasized a particular character trait in the way they served G'd. Abraham is known for his acts of kindness (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeira, Love G'd, love kindness). Isaac maintained a very high level of fear and awe of G'd. Jacob's special character trait is truth. As it says in this week's parasha (Bereishis 25:27): "Jacob was an 'Ish Tom" [a man of integrity]." This seems puzzling. For Jacob conducted himself several times in ways that do not at appear to be truthful.
'Stealing' the blessing
In the first incident, the Torah relates how Jacob's mother, Rebecca, coached him to pretend to be Eisav to obtain a blessing from his blind father, Isaac (Bereishis 27:5-29). She prepared Isaac's favourite meal in the same way Eisav normally did. She dressed Jacob in Eisav's clothes, so that he would have the odour of Eisav. She also placed hairy goat skins on Jacob's arms and neck in order that he would feel like Eisav. The scheme succeeded. Isaac gave the blessing intended for Eisav to Jacob. If Jacob 'stole' Eisav's blessing, how can Jacob be described as excelling in the character trait of truth?
In the second incident, the Torah describes how Jacob used different means to outwit Lavan, after they made a deal how to split Lavan's flock. Jacob took coloured rods, and placed them in front of the sheep when they came to drink during mating time (Bereishis 30:31-43). When the flock gave birth, the newborns were ringed, speckled or spotted, having the same markings as the rods that Jacob placed in front of their parents. In this way, Jacob was able to amass great wealth. Here again, it does not look like Jacob was truthful in his dealings with Lavan. In order to understand how Jacob's integrity went hand in hand with these two incidents, we have to clarify the Torah's approach to truthfulness.
Hiding from a murderer
The famous professor Immanuel Kant was once giving a class on truthfulness and integrity. He explained that to be truthful means to always tell exactly what happened no matter whatever the consequences. For example, if a murderer is pursuing someone with the intent to kill him, and I know where the victim is hiding, said the professor, the trait of truthfulness obligates me to reveal the location of the victim.
The Torah's approach is totally different. G'd's will is the ultimate truth and the Torah is the Torah of Truth, as it discloses G'd's will. According to the Torah, says Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, we will know the truth, when we clarify what G'd wants. Sometimes G'd wants us to say things exactly as they happened. But there are situations when G'd wants us to modify what we say. According to the Torah, were we to follow the teachings of Professor Kant, we would be held responsible as an accomplice to the victim's murder. On the contrary, the Torah would expect us not to disclose the victim's whereabouts in order to protect him. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 23b) teaches that we should modify what we say in order to prevent harm.
We find that G'd Himself modified His words just to avoid any bad feelings between Abraham and Sarah. When one of the visiting angels told Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son, Sarah laughed and said, "After I have withered shall I again have delicate skin? And my husband is old?" (Bereishis 18:12). When G'd repeated her words to Abraham, He said, "Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: 'Shall I in truth bear a child, though I have aged?' (Bereishis 18:13). G'd did not mention that Sarah had questioned how her "old husband" could father a child. Rather, G'd made it sound as if Sarah had thought her own age to be an impediment to give birth. This teaches us that it is appropriate to slightly alter a quotation to avoid causing bad feelings and to promote peace between people.
The Talmud (ibid) further teaches that it is acceptable not to relate all details to preserve modesty and protect privacy. For example, if a person is asked whether he is knowledgeable in a certain field, he may hide the extent of his knowledge to maintain his modesty. Similarly, in personal family matters, especially in regards to husband and wife, it is not appropriate to share certain facts with others. It is no one's business to pry into private matters. For example, it is correct to hide when a married woman visits a mikvah.
The Torah says (Devarim 18:13) "You shall be wholehearted ('tamim') with G'd." This means that we must have full trust and perfect faith in G'd. The Chofetz Chaim points out that the Torah teaches us to have full trust in G'd, but we shall not be na?ve and trust every person. We do not live in a perfect world, and we must take precautions to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our belongings.
Required to 'steal'
The words "tamim" and "tam" share the same root. Jacob is described as a "tam", indicating his complete faith in G'd. His mother told him, in the name of G'd (se Targum Yonathan Bereishis 27:5), to dress up as Eisav in order to obtain the blessing that Isaac was planning to give Eisav. Despite Jacob's initial reluctance, once he realized this was what G'd wanted of him, Jacob accepted G'd's words as the ultimate truth, and did everything a man of integrity would do to fulfill G'd's will. In other words, the ultimate truth obligated Jacob to "steal" the blessing.
When Jacob came to Lavan's house, he told Rachel (Bereishis 29:12) that he was her father's brother. Rashi quotes from the Midrash that he was hinting that if Lavan would try to cheat him, he would take similar measures to protect himself. But if Lavan would deal with him in an honest way, then Jacob would reciprocate with complete integrity as expected from a son of Rivka. Before Jacob ran away from Lavan, Jacob described his own honesty and integrity to his wives Rachel and Leah, in contrast to Lavan who constantly changed their agreement in order to cheat Jacob (Bereishis 31:6). He served Lavan with all his might even though Lavan changed their agreements one hundred times. When Lavan met up with Jacob, (Bereishis 31:38) Jacob spoke up and described how he took care of Lavan's cattle by day and night for twenty years, and served him with ultimate honesty. Only when Lavan tried to cheat Jacob did G'd help him to protect himself by arranging the rods.
The Rambam, at the end of the laws regarding employers and employees, teaches that just as an employer may not withhold the wage of his employee, so the employee is obligated to act honestly and may not waste time during his employment. He must make every effort to do his job to the best of his ability. The Rambam uses Jacob as the prototype of an honest employee and refers to him as Jacob the Tzaddik (the righteous). Therefore, says the Rambam, G'd rewarded him even in this world and he became exceedingly prosperous. However, G'd wanted that the reward should come through Lavan as payment for Jacob's years of devoted work. He therefore helped Jacob to outwit Lavan.
The Torah wants us to live our lives according to the ultimate truth. This includes being resourceful to protect ourselves from harm and to promote peace. It also allows us to modify what we say in order to preserve our modesty and to protect our privacy. If we honestly seek truth, we can find it in the Torah, where G'd teaches and reveals the ultimate truth.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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