Deception and Justification

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deceptionby R. Gil Student

I. Deception Is Bad

Was Ya’akov punished for deceiving his father, Yitzchak, in obtaining the firstborn’s blessing? The story, as told in Gen. 27, offers no judgment but many modern commentators, focused solely on the simple meaning (peshat), insist that Lavan’s subsequent deception of Ya’akov served as punishment for the earlier trickery. Additionally, Ya’akov’s sons’ sale of Yosef and deception of Ya’akov also demonstrates a clear negative judgment on the initial deception. I question this reading of the narrative, all on the peshat level, and wonder whether this exposes a subjective aspect of literary interpretation.

[We should all agree that ethical considerations are important but should only be considered after determining the text’s message. Importing an external consideration into the textual study is contrary to peshat methodology.]

Prof. E.S. Hartom, in his introductory remarks to Gen. 29, states explicitly that Lavan’s trickery was punishment for Ya’akov’s deception. Nehama Leibowitz writes (New Studies in Bereshit, p. 266): “The vicissitudes of Jacob’s life teach us, at every step, how he was repaid–measure for measure–for taking advantage of his father’s blindness.” Similarly, the Christian commentator Gordon Wenham writes (Word Biblical Commentary, Gen. vol. 2, p. 216) writes: “Only subsequently does it emerge that Jacob and Rebekah suffer for their deeds… Thus, despite his apparent silence about the morality of the actions of Jacob and Rebekah, the narrator points out that they paid dearly for them.”

II. Counter-Arguments

I find their conclusions unconvincing for four reasons:

  1. Ya’akov was not the first person in the Bible to deceive others. If anything, he was following the example of Avraham and Yitzchak who lied about their wives (Gen. 12:13, 20:2, 26:7). While their context was different, certainly the biblical book’s message is that deception is sometimes warranted. This is also stated fairly clearly in later books of the Bible (2 Samuel 22:27; Psalms 18:27). If you are going to look at the theme of deception in the Bible, or just in the book of Genesis, you have to start earlier than Ya’akov. And if you are going to suggest that being deceived is a punishment for deceiving, perhaps Ya’akov’s deception of his father was punishment for Yitzchak’s deception of Avimelekh.
     
  2. The text indicates that Ya’akov deserved the firstborn blessing. Not only did he buy it from Eisav (Gen. 25:29-34) but God Himself said that Ya’akov would achieve the firstborn rights (ibid. 25:23). The text clearly implies that Ya’akov was in the right and Yitzchak in the wrong.
     
  3. Yitzchak apparently forgave Ya’akov. When Rachel sent Ya’akov away out of fear of Eisav’s revenge, Yitzchak first blesses Ya’akov again without any hint of anger (Gen. 28:1-4).
     
  4. The interpretation that Ya’akov’s suffering from other people’s deception implies his deception was wrong is highly subjective. Arguably, Lavan’s deception of Ya’akov ended up as a benefit–Leah was a wonderful, even if less appreciated, wife who bore Ya’akov many children and remained with her husband long after Rachel’s premature death. While Ya’akov had to work more years in order to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage, he apparently would have done so anyway (see Gen. 31:38).

An alternate interpretation, that I think is closer to the simple meaning, is that the text approves of Ya’akov’s deception. The context seems to imply justification. Gen. 25 discusses the prophecy of Ya’akov’s superiority and the contrast of Ya’akov’s and Eisav’s personalities. Gen. 26 (v. 7) mentions Yitzchak’s deception of Avimelekh. And at the end of Gen. 27 and beginning of Gen. 28, Yitzchak blesses Ya’akov again and instructs him not to marry a Canaanite woman. This seems to be an intentional contrast with Eisav, who married Hittite women to his parents’ dismay (26:34-35). The entire context seems to imply that Ya’akov was justified in using deception to obtain what was rightfully his rather than allowing the wicked Eisav to continue the Abrahamic legacy.

III. Deception Is Not Always Bad

So far, I have refrained from citing midrashim and traditional commentaries. The midrashim justify Ya’akov’s deception but the traditional commentaries are mixed. Tanchuma Yashan (Toldedos 10, cited in Torah Shelemah, Gen. ch. 27 no. 76) repunctuates Ya’akov’s words to Yitzchak so that Ya’akov did not technically lie. Torah Shelemah (ibid.) cites other similar midrashim. The book of Jubilees (26:17) explains that Yitzchak failed to recognize Ya’akov because “it was a dispensation from heaven.” According to this ancient interpretation, even God took part in the deception.

Rashi (Gen. 27:19) and Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher (ibid.) all adopt the approach of the above midrash. While conceding that Ya’akov deceived Yitzchak, they argue that he did not explicitly lie. Clearly, they consider Ya’akov’s actions justified. Ibn Ezra (ibid. and Ex. 31:18) rejects this approach out of hand because such a technical truth is still so misleading as to constitute deception, as does Radak (Gen. ibid.) who argues that even God has lied so Ya’akov certainly could as well, in the right circumstance. Apparently, Rashi et al. consider deception appropriate given the situation but not an outright lie. Somewhat similarly, R. Yitzchak Arama (Akeidas Yitzchak, Gen. no. 23) argues at length that Ya’akov was correct to deceive Yitzchak in order to obtain the blessing rather than the wicked Eisav.

Even some of the more peshat-oriented modern commentators agree. Nehama Leibowitz (pp. 264-265) quotes R. Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenburg’s explanation that Ya’akov had reservations about Rivkah’s plan to deceive Yitzchak (Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah, Gen. 27:12, which, by the way, resolves a question asked in a footnote to the Vilna Gaon’s Kol Eliyahu on Chayei Sarah). Surprisingly, she does not quote R. Mecklenburg’s commentary to 27:16 (link) in which he explains at length that sometimes deception is necessary and this was one of those times.

Shadal (Gen. 27:1) also seems to believe that Ya’akov acted appropriately, noting that Yitzchak eventually agreed with the outcome. Mendelssohn’s Biur (Gen. 27:33 sv. gam,35) seems to reach the same conclusion. R. JH Hertz (Gen. 27:5,19) shifts the blame for the deceit to Rivkah and argues that she was justified by the prior prophecy.

The prophet Michah (7:20) surprisingly connects Ya’akov with truthfulness. This message perhaps emphasizes the complex nature of truth and its occasional suppression for other values, as implied in the verses from 2 Samuel and Psalms cited above. Ya’akov’s deception in order to effectuate God’s explicit decree places a higher truth above limited actions. Arguably, the greater biblical context justifies this choice, contrary to the claims of recent literary commentators.

(Reposted from 2012)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

5 comments

  1. We once went very much in depth into this question in a YU Bible class with R’ Allan Schwartz. It pays to examine the text of each bracha: The first, meant for Esav, is all gashmiut. The last- which Yitzchak seems to have been saving for Yaakov all along (he doesn’t give it to Esav even after finding out)- is the important one, about the line of the Avot.

    This leads to the question of whether it would have been better for Esav to get the gashmiut- which, ironically, he ended up getting anyway- and perhaps he and Yaakov would have some sort of Yissachar/Zevulun relationship. Yitzchak seems to have felt this way, perhaps based on certain aspects of his personality. Rivka apparently felt differently- perhaps due to her experience with her brother, she saw Esav for what he was (and we know that neither she nor Yitzchak was happy with him before this) and decided that Yaakov needed both. Apparently Yitzchak agreed- as said above, he ended up giving Yaakov the important bracha anyway. But it’s a fascinating idea to consider.

    I think R’ Slifkin’s first book was on this topic, but I have no idea what his conclusion was.

  2. longtimereader

    I think that both the Netziv and Sfas Emes point the above out. What do you mean that Esav ended up getting the gashmius (wealth & political power) brachos? Do you mean historically, or the fact that Yaakov seems to give these brachos back to Esav in Parsha Vayishlach (33:11, though Rashi explains otherwise)? I think both are likely, but if so, צריך עיון why ויתן לך would be included into the Motzei Shabbos liturgy.

  3. Rabbi Student –

    It is a difficult area, as the text does not render a clear judgment, certainly not at least at the time of the events. That said, there is significant textual evidence that the Torah finds fault in Yaakov’s actions. It is not just conjecture that Yaakov’s later travails were punishment for his deception of his father and brother. The words themselves suggest an element of mida-keneged-mida. Yaakov is given the wrong sibling when he is “blind” at night. He protests using the term “Lama rimitani?”, similar to the phrase used by Yitzchak, “ba achicha b’mirma”. But Lavan’s response is the most telling. “We do not do this in our place, to put the younger before the older”. Lavan could not have known it, but those words no doubt had a deeper message for Yaakov. This was payback. It is as a result of Lavan’s deception that so much of Yaakov’s difficulties arise, culminating in Yosef’s kidnapping and sale. Here to, the vehicle of this harsher deception is telling. A goat’s blood, reminiscent of the goat skins Yaakov placed on his arms to deceive his father. It is hard to ignore that the Torah seems to be taking Yaakov to task for his actions.

    The counterarguments you present are not convincing.
    1. I am not sure how the presence of prior deceptions that may or may not have been justified impacts our understanding of the Torah’s judgment of this particular act. Just because one deception is justified – and it is not clear that those deceptions were justified either – does not mean another under vastly different circumstances is justified as well. As to the suggestion that the deception of Yitzchok could just as easily be seen as a punishment for Yitzchok’s deception of Avimelech, textual evidence of such a link would have to be presented to support such a link. It is otherwise unsupported speculation.
    2. Indeed, Yaakov did buy the first-born right from Eisav. That is what makes for fascinating moral tension to this episode. It belongs to Yaakov, and he takes what is rightfully his. But the Torah still seems to take him to task for his actions. It is a fantastic moral ambiguity that the Torah teaches us here. Situations are rarely black and white, and even doing the “right” thing can have devastating consequences. It is a statement on how a person can be right and still be wrong.
    3. Yitzchok forgiving Yaakov is poor proof that Yaakov’s actions were correct. There are many reasons to account for this. Most obvious, is that parents forgive. Yaakov forgave Reuven for his trespass (to an extent). David forgave both Amnon and Avshalom in turn. That is not to say that any of their actions were correct. It is also possible that after Eisav married Hittite women, Yitzchok understood better his sons’ destinies. There are those who say that this particular bracha – the bracha of Avraham’s legacy – was always intended for Yaakov. In any event, the bracha itself is no proof that Yaakov’s earlier actions were justified.
    4. The final counterargument simply has no textual basis whatsoever. Yaakov never wanted to marry Leah. A simple reading of the text shows that much of Yaakov’s difficulties in his life were related to the strife between his wives, and later between the children of those wives. It was the cause of the loss of his beloved son for 22 years. There is no textual evidence that Yaakov ever had a loving relationship with Leah, either before or after Rachel’s death. Much good would of course ultimately come from Lavan’s deception. But that does not change the carnage it caused in Yaakov’s personal life.

    It is of course clear to us that Yaakov was the intended heir of Avraham’s legacy. In a way, that blinds us to a fair evaluation of the text. Traditional commentaries cast Yaakov as good and Eisav as evil. The text does not present the facts so simplistically however. Yaakov’s missteps and their consequences are recorded. Eisav is not presented as evil. He is a man of the field, tempestuous, impulsive, lacking any sense of mission or G-dliness. But the Torah does not describe him as evil. Perhaps it is our own preconceived notions of Yaakov and Eisav that are the real external considerations that we import as we interpret the text.

    Aryeh Baer

  4. R’ H Schachter is very against ascribing any negativity to characters in tanach (not limited to avot) unless there is a basis in chazal. He quotes the Chofetz Chaim (and others I think) on this issue as being surprised at those (including Ramban) who do so.

  5. Joel Rich –
    And yet the Torah itself shows no such reluctance. Neither does a host of rishonim (including the Ramban) and achronim. Case in point, many of the thoughts in my post above were from Rabbi Sacks.
    Aryeh

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