This is something I’ve wanted to write for years so please bear with me yes? Ya’akov Avinu, or Jacob, is fundamentally a liar. His mother Rivka, or Rebecca, encourages him to lie. He tricks his brother Esau twice, stealing first his birthright and then his blessing. There, I got it out of my system…
Now, it is true what Rav Shai Held states in his “No Excuses: Jacob’s Sin and its Consequences” echoing the Mishna in Baba Kama 2:6, that to be human means to be accountable for one’s actions. True it is, also, that Ya’akov learns this lesson through his own actions, thereby teaching the Bible reader that actions are always followed by some consequence, and that excuses are useless upon tackling the unpleasant moments of “truth”: when all the lies one has stacked finally unwind and leave space to a healthier clarity, excuses just won’t help. But this reading, although certainly radical in the world of Jewish biblical exegesis, still leaves me somewhat dissatisfied. Ya’akov is not merely learning the hard way that he is accountable for the Machiavellian deceptions devised in order to steal his brother’s birthright and blessing: he is, I think, teaching us that the utopic and absolute values of “truth,” “falsity,” “virtue” and “sin” are actually relative.
Personally, I have always had a very hard time accepting the apologetic readings of Ya’akov’s actions – he had to do it, his mother had moments of prophetic foreknowledge, and their actions must be seen as necessary and valuable within the framework of history. I am not only a literary scholar but, I admit it, I am also a textual pedant, but that’s what I do for a living. That said, reading the narrative from the perspective of what the end will uncover is unacceptable – or, in other words, to read the historical events that take place on a timeline as the necessary stages towards an objective which was unknown at any point on that very timeline, means to demean the suffering we all experience in that very moment, to dehumanize our actions as part of a broader narrative, and impose a teleological understanding of those events. It is my opinion that if we allow ourselves to see the difficulty of the specific historical moment, or in this case the actions of a specific person like Ya’akov vis-à-vis Esau, we will actually acknowledge their humanity and will learn more from their examples. And the lesson I think the Ya’akov – Esau brotherhood teaches us is that truth and lies, virtues and sins, are not clear-cut categories, but relative, and elastic.
Ya’akov is one of the two twins born from Rivka – Esau is the first born. Genesis 25:25-6 tells us that:
25 And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.
26 And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob
Ya’akov is not merely named after a curious event characterizing his birth – rather, as the Romans would have said, his name expresses his destiny, his essence, or nomen omen – he is the one who holds onto Esau’s heel, he is the one who supplants Esau twice. One can but feel for Esau’s suffering, when he discovers that his brother has fooled him again (Gen. 36):
34 And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father.
35 And he said, Thy brother came with subtilty, and hath taken away thy blessing.
36 And he said, Is not he rightly named Jacob? For he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing. And he said, Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?
A wide variety of exegetical readings of these verses have been produced in order to excuse Ya’akov and indict Esau – Ya’akov is inherently good and is obviously, as we know from the end of the story, destined to be the one to “make history.” Esau is animal-like, a hunter, a man of instincts, and ultimately the archetypical origin of Edom, later seen as Rome, the Empire, and then extended to the Christian Church. But really, Esau is the first born, the first of two twins born to a blind father who was almost sacrificed by his father. Esau’s story is one of suffering.
So are we supposed to excuse Ya’akov, and see his actions are acceptable within the broader framework of history? And are we to dismiss Esau’s suffering as that of an insincere, sinful and rightly tricked individual, from whom will descend a powerful people and religion? It may be useful, first of all, to discard the concepts of right and wrong, true and false. When Niccolo Machiavelli tackled the concept of how a leader should behave in ruling, he did not address ideal concepts of rectitude, and denied that imagined republics and principalities actually “exist in truth,” declaring that the truth in these or all matters is what he called “effectual truth.” Rules, in obeisance of which one defines a person as righteous, are not absolute, but are always made by men, and are imposed upon men by other men. The rules or laws are made by governments or other powers acting under necessity, and must be obeyed out of the same necessity. Whatever is “necessary” may be called just and reasonable, but justice is no more reasonable than what a person’s prudence tells him he must acquire for himself, or must submit to, because men cannot afford justice in any sense that transcends their own preservation. To quote Machiavelli from Bk 15:
And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation. For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity.
Yes, Ya’akov is a liar, and a trickster, and is not, I think, excusable because father of the people, prophet or what not. He lies and knows that he has to lie if he wants to change the order of things. And Laban too lies to him, and tricks him. Lying and tricking and supplanting are all actions which contradict virtuous behavior, but they are what makes us human beings – and Ya’akov’s lesson is, quite paradoxically, that a truth is not an ideal concept but one defined by contextual factors – similarly, a virtuous action is one that is defined within an extremely complex network of causes and contextual circumstances. So how should we see sin and falsehood? It is quite significant that the English writer John Milton wrote in 1643 that
…it was from out the rinde of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill.
Truth and falsehood, good and evil came into the world, in Milton’s words, like Ya’akov and Esau, as two twins cleaving together. And the doom of our post-Lapsarian reality is that we, like Ya’akov, and Esau, must know both good and evil, truth and falsity – or better, we are to know truth through falsity, we must tell lies and tell the truth, and learn how to distinguish between one and the other as relative categories and not, pace Plato and post-Socratic Western thinking, as absolute and ideal categories.
*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.