Yaakov said, “Please do not refuse me; if I have gained favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me, for seeing your face, it is as though I had seen the divine Countenance, as you have received me so graciously.” (Bereshith 33:10)
Flattering a person falsely, especially if he is an evil person, is considered a very serious offense, yet Yaakov flattered Esav profusely. Such purposeful flattery of evil people in this world is only permitted when one’s life is in danger or when there would be other serious consequences. In this instance, since his meeting with Esav placed Yaakov’s life in great danger, there was clearly a good reason for Yaakov to flatter Esav as he did.1 Therefore his words do not fall under the prohibition of flattery.2 According to other opinions, Yaakov’s “flattery” of Esav was permissible only because his words could have been interpreted as an insult, for the word Yaakov used to refer to the divine – Elokim – could also be used to refer to idols.3
A popular life philosophy nowadays is to “tell it like it is,” but this is not the Jewish outlook. Especially in educational settings, one must not speak the whole truth in every situation. A teacher is obligated to flatter his students, even if they don’t deserve it.4 Poor schoolwork and misbehavior frequently stem from low self-esteem. If a teacher can make a child feel good about himself, there is a good chance that in time that child’s classwork will improve. Once a teacher has succeeded in boosting a student’s confidence, he may find an opportunity to tell the student that he is falling short of his potential.5
Just as a teacher can flatter a student even if the praise is undeserved, he can also give a student credit for something although he has not earned it, in order to bolster his enthusiasm for learning. Rav Akiva used to say halachoth in the name of his students in order to encourage them.6 Similarly, a teacher is permitted to give a student a higher grade than he has actually earned if it will induce the student to improve his learning.7 It is well known that a number of great educators have made it a habit to take the incorrect or incoherent words of their students and reinterpret, rephrase and explain them to make them express something substantial and important.8 All of these tactics are valuable educational tools, and do not fall within the bounds of the prohibition of falsehood.
However even in a situation of great need, a man of total truth will never resort to flatter to get what he wants. An important rav was once asked to get the Brisker Rav to sign a letter bearing a request that was to be sent to a high government official. The rav responded that since the letter was directed to an important political figure, it surely contained flattery of the official. The Brisker Rav, being a man of total truth, would never consent to sign such a letter, regardless of how worthy the cause.9
1. Sotah 41b.
2. Meiri on Sota 41b; Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:199; Kad HaKemach.
3. Cited in Rabbeinu Bachyeh’s comments on this verse.
4. Orchoth Tzadikim, Sha’ar HaChanifa.
5. Sh’lah on Devarim.
6. Eruvin 13a.
7. Heard in the name of Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth (author of Shemirath Shabboth K’Hilchatha).
8. Expressed by Rav Shlomo Brevda.
9. MiDevar Sheker Tirchak, p. 155.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org