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By Rabbi Daniel Travis | Series: | Level:

“Anochi (It is I), Esav your firstborn.” (Bereshith 27:19)

Yaakov is the symbol of truth, as the verse testifies, “Give truth to Yaakov.” 1 How could God command him to deceive his father Yitzchak?2 While at face value Yaakov’s words may not appear honest, Rashi explains that he said, “It is I; Esav is your firstborn,” which was not saying anything untrue,3 although this was obviously misunderstood by Yitzchak. Once he had purchased the rights of the firstborn from Esav, Yaakov was entitled to the blessings,4 and it was not deception, since deception is defined as a person tricking someone in order to get something that is not rightfully his. When Yaakov entered his father’s room he conveyed to Yitzchak: I am coming in place of Esav your firstborn. For this very reason, God later gave Yaakov the name Yisrael, which derives from the Hebrew word yashar, meaning “straight.” This new name indicates that although it may seem that Yaakov acquired the blessings through a crooked act, it was actually an act of truth and straightness.5

In analyzing this complex episode in Jewish history we cannot ignore the following issue: since Yaakov was so exceptionally upright, why did God place him in a situation in which he would need to act in a way that seemed underhanded? Although we are never capable of fully understanding God’s actions, one thing is quite clear: all punishment is meted out measure for measure.6 How was Esav’s punishment measure for measure?

Esav used to ask Yitzchak halachic questions to trick his father into thinking that these issues were important to him.7 While on the outside he acted righteously, internally there was not an iota of honesty motivating him. Therefore his behavior is compared to a pig’s: just as the pig holds up its split hooves, trying to convince people that it is kosher although it is not (for a pig does not chew its cud), so did Esav outwardly show himself to be righteous and truthful.8 For this reason, God wanted Esav to be punished in a way that appeared deceitful, in order to make it clear to him and to others what was really motivating him.

The Gemara tells us that once a man made a party and inadvertently invited his enemy, Bar Kamtza, instead of his friend, whose name was Kamtza. When the man saw his enemy in attendance at his party he became infuriated, and literally threw him out of the banquet hall. Bar Kamtza sought to take revenge on those who had witnessed his disgrace. He went to the Roman emperor and reported that the Jews were planning a rebellion. The emperor’s reaction eventually led to the destruction of the Temple.9

We may well ask, why did Bar Kamtza have to lie to the Roman emperor? If he wanted to libel the Jewish People, surely he could have found something true to say, which would likewise have sparked the emperor’s attack on Jerusalem. Bar Kamtza’s lie initiated God’s punishment of the Jewish People for their own false behavior. The Jews at the time had been acting nicely to one another outwardly, but their hearts were filled with hatred for their fellow Jews. Because their behavior was rooted in deceitfulness, their punishment came through Bar Kamtza’s lie.10


1 Michah 7:20.
2 See previous article.
3 Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachyeh, Malbim, Or HaChaim on Bereshith 27:19.
4 According to the Zohar, Esav had actually willingly given the privileges of the firstborn son to Yaakov many years previous to the actual sale of the birthright, but had not officially documented it. The sale was only a method of proving that the birthright rightfully belonged to Yaakov.
5 Alshich Bereshith 35:10.
6 See the article on Bereshith 18:15 entitled “The Punishment Fits The Crime,” (page 101).
7 Rashi, Bereshith 25:27.
8 Rashi, Bereshith 26:34. See also the article entitled “Hypocrisy,” (page 161) on this verse.
9 Gittin 55b.
10 Heard from Rav Shlomo Brevda.

Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and