The daily headlines often feature the illegal and illicit behavior of those in positions of responsibility, one of the greatest threats to the health of our society. Why do those in a position of responsibility, whether in the fields of government, finance, sports, or even faith, fail to act in accordance with the nobility of their office?
We are often unlikely to fully come to grips with the illegal and illicit activity of our national superstars because we, as a society, have reached a point where the ends often justify the means. We rationalize the criminal conduct and drug abuse of top athletes in professional sports we love, or worse, ignore it, for our indifference to such misconduct would not accord with the lip service we normally pay to morality and ethics. We gaze at the superstars on Wall Street and are willing to overlook the crimes they have committed because we are so in awe of the fortunes they have made. We see in their lives our frustrated dreams. Our contemporary culture is filled with heroes and idealized figures that made their way to the top by dubious if not illegal means, and we are told that that is OK. We sit back complacently and we are jealous. And we pass these values on to our children and have the nerve to pretend to be shocked when they learn the lessons well.
We might think that this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayetze, would confirm this ends-justify-the-means type of attitude. After all, didn’t we learn last week that Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau, and later tricked his father, albeit with his mother’s help, into stealing the special blessing, which also rightfully belonged to Esau? And didn’t he get away with it? After all, despite Jacob’s youthful indiscretions, does not God, at the beginning of Vayetze, appear to Jacob in a dream, and promise him protection and descendants who would dwell in the land of his fathers, the land of Israel? Not only does the parshah seem to ignore Jacob’s earlier actions, it affirms and blesses them.
Or does it? The Bible implies that the ancient world suffered from the same lack of moral courage that often guides our own society, but such behavior was not acceptable for members of the covenant. This week’s Torah reading is a description of the many ways Jacob is paid back for his misdeeds earlier in life. Like so many lessons in the Bible, the Torah doesn’t blurt its message out, but shows us the proper direction we ought to take in life through the activities of the patriarchs. A close reading of the life of Jacob shows that his moral ambiguity is not to be emulated. Lack of moral direction does indeed have consequences.
As Jacob skillfully exploited his brother Esau, so did Laban do unto Jacob. As Jacob misrepresented himself to his father to secure the special blessing, so did Laban misrepresent Leah, so that Jacob would marry her instead of Rachel, whom he loved and for whom he suffered seven long years. In fact, so that we make no mistake about the relationship between the two seemingly disparate events, the Bible uses the same verb to describe the feelings of deception on the part of the aggrieved parties in each case. If I may quote professor Nahum Sarna, writing in the JPS Commentary on Genesis, “the perpetrator of deception is now the victim, hoisted on his own petard.” And further examples abound, as Jacob flees Laban’s house after 20 long years of service, with his uncle in pursuit. At this confrontation, Jacob bitterly cries out to his uncle:
“For had it not been for the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, You would have sent me away empty handed.” (Genesis 31:42)
This verse expresses the bitterness that Jacob endured in his exile from his homeland, an exile caused by his guile and mistreatment of others.
The Bible does not explicitly denounce Jacob’s behavior. It does not have to. For a comparison with the lives of the other patriarchs shows how Jacob’s life was somehow different, and the only explanation can be the contrast in his approach to ethical living. The Bible refers to Abraham and Isaac as dying “in a ripe old age,” whereas Jacob describes his life to Pharaoh near the end of his days
“… the years of my life on earth are 130. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the lifespan of my fathers, during their sojourns.” (Genesis 47:9)
From the Bible as well as our classical commentators, we learn that our patriarchs, matriarchs, and other heroes were not above reproach. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all made their mistakes. So did Moses, whose mistakes were grave enough to prevent him from reaching the Land of Israel. King David also made grave errors. What separates biblical society from our contemporary literature is that its mistakes are not glossed over, rationalized, or ignored. They are dealt with, and are a part of the total picture of the individual we are studying. Rather than display faintheartedness where violations of God’s ethical and moral codes are involved, the Bible shows a clear moral compass amidst a storm of competing visions. That moral compass, the pursuit of justice, which is at the heart of the covenant, must guide our behavior at all times. To violate it brings peril to ourselves, no less than to our father Jacob.
Again, to quote from professor Sarna, “… Jacobs’s duplicitous behavior … was totally unacceptable.” Let us not make the mistake of thinking it is, perhaps, acceptable in our time. To be Jewish is to stand firm in upholding the eternal values of Torah, which are superior to the short-term fads that often compete for our attention. And though it is difficult and causes us to stand apart, let us be assured that adherence to what we know to be true and reflective of God’s will makes a difference in our lives, and the way our society conducts itself. In the behavior of Jacob, we can see both virtue and wickedness. May God grant us the courage and sensitivity to know the difference between the two, and act accordingly.