This week’s “Guest Lecturer” is Rabbi Shmuel Goldstein of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel of Denver, CO.
If we were to look for underlying themes in this week’s Torah reading, one would certainly be deceit. Lavan cheats Yaakov by replacing Rachel with Leah. Later, Lavan acts with duplicity by continually changing Yaakov’s wages. Then, Yaakov tries his hand at deceit by sneaking away from Lavan without as much as a “goodbye,” at the end of a twenty-year stay. (And while we’re mentioning it, let’s not forget Yaakov and Rivka’s ploy from last week’s parsha of deceiving Yitzchak for the blessings.)
As is the case with so much in the Torah, one needs to look a bit more behind the simple external reading to understand the lessons being taught. Through the eyes of our Sages, we see that Lavan’s lies and deceit were for his own benefit. His approach in life was like the Mafioso who robs you of everything you own and then declares, with enough insincerity to curdle your intestines, “What!?! Me? Would I ever hurt you? You’re my best friend.” His name is Lavan. It means white in Hebrew. He’s Mr. Squeaky Clean. If you don’t catch him red-handed, then he didn’t do it.
In contradistinction to Lavan is Yaakov. Despite what we see from the Torah, the oral tradition and the mystical teachings tell us that Yaakov is the personal embodiment of Truth. Just as Avraham is the pillar of kindness in the world, Yaakov is the pillar of Truth. What is this thing called truth if Yaakov, one who deceives, is the one to teach it? He seems to be far from truth.
There are two points to elucidate for our discussion to understand truth. First is that truth is not only saying what is true as we normally understand it. Truth is the means to bring out the glory of G-d’s presence in this world. It is found at an inner place of consistently seeking out the Divine Will. When one stays at this very high level of holiness, of continually seeking to bring out the G-d’s glory, he has found truth.
If your name was Fred and a madman approached you with his AK47 poised and asked, “Are you Fred? I’ve got some business with him,” the appropriate response (at least as this Fred understands things) is “no, but he just went that way.” Truth here means to keep yourself alive.
When can one justify this decision to deceive? Once we’re granted Divine permission to tell “white lies,” where do we stop? How does one divine what is Divine?
The Torah is called truth. Because it is a revelation of G-d’s will, when one has delved deeply enough into the Torah, he becomes a person who knows what is right. Through years of study, one can learn when the saying of true words gives way to a higher truth (of staying alive in the case of our friend Fred or of keeping the burgeoning holy nation intact in the case of Yaakov “lying” to Yitzchak and Lavan).
The second point of clarification for this discussion is that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov represent an idea of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Avraham is, as noted above, the pillar of chesed, of an overabundance of loving kindness. His son, Yitzchak, represents gevurah, the pillar of discipline, holding to proper boundaries in order to further development. He carves the path that enables his descendants to have the ability to draw lines and set limits — the antithesis of kindness, which is an overflowing past one’s boundaries. Yaakov is the pillar of truth; he is Torah. His path, the synthesis, teaches us the harmonic blend: when to apply the openness of kindness, and when to use the trait of making and keeping boundaries.
The truth is staying connected to what is right and not being controlled by our natural desires. Sometimes we have desires to be open when the correct response is border control. At other times, we want to set a limit where the correct response is to show boundless love.
There is one other example of deceit in our parsha, that illustrates this idea. When Yaakov and his family flee from the house of Lavan, Rachel steals her father’s idols in order to try to stop him from this brand of pernicious spirituality. When he catches up with Yaakov’s camp, he searches all of the tents for his stolen idols. Rachel’s tent is the last one he searches (perhaps because she is the least suspicious). But she has learned the trait of truth; she knows that for the purpose of destroying idol worship, one must deceive if necessary.
What is her deceit? The idols are hidden in the camel’s packsaddle. She is sitting on them and doesn’t get up when her father, Lavan, comes into the tent. She excuses herself from rising for her father because “the way of women” was upon her (Gen. 31:35).
A camel is symbolic of kindness. Its ability to carry water for such great distances is a great gift. Also, the root of the word camel in Hebrew (gamal) is the same as the word to bestow (gomel).
In mystical thought, the female energy is the energy of gevurah, the energy of setting limits in order to further development. Through our holy mother Rachel, these ideas all culminate. She perfects the harnessing of the chesed and gevurah, symbolized by the camel and her own femininity, to help destroy an aspect of idol worship. She understands all of these ideas of what truth is, and she knows that she needs to be deceptive if that’s what the Divine truth calls for. She understands that truth is bringing out the glory of G-d.
Text Copyright © 2001 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.