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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:

“And Ya’akov took of the rocks…”

“…the Rabbis said, the minimum implied by “rocks” is two; Avraham gave birth to *P’solet* (chaff), namely Yishma’el and the children of K’turah. Yitzhak gave birth to Esav and all of his generals; regarding me, if these two rocks can come together, I am certain that no *P’solet* will come from me. (B’resheet Rabbah 68:11)


In last week’s issue, we analyzed the utilization of guile and deception by our Avot and their kin. We noted that whereas the Avot themselves only used this in times of danger – and only when in a temporary location – some of their kin (notably Lavan) were much more comfortable in the world of deceit.

There are two additional points relating to this issue which we must address this week:

a) How do we understand the unpleasant (to say the least) consequences of “justified deceit” which weave their way through the rest of Sefer B’resheet (and, in a more Midrashic vein, through the rest of Jewish History)? If Ya’akov was justified in masquerading as Esav in order to deceive Yitzhak and gain the premier B’rakhah, why does it bear such a heavy personal and historic cost (as we will see further on)?

b) How is it that Lavan is related to Ya’akov? How can Esav be the son of Yitzhak? In other words, why do the great and grand Patriarchs and Matriarchs of our holy nation give birth to such antagonistic characters and have the dubious honor of kinship with the likes of Lavan?



The Mishna (Sotah 1:7) states: “According to one’s behavior, they (Heaven) behave with him.” This kind of retribution is known as *Midah k’Neged Midah* (measure for measure).

This is nowhere exemplified as clearly and consistently in our literature as in the book of B’resheet. The same Lavan who fooled Ya’akov into marrying Leah and then working another 7 years for Rachel was fooled by that same Rachel when she stole his idols. The same Ya’akov who deceived his father in the dark was deceived in the dark when he thought that his new bride was Rachel. Note the comment of the Midrash we cited last week:

…all night Ya’akov called “Rachel” and Leah responded; in the morning: “Behold she was Leah”. He said to her: “O deceptive one daughter of a deceptive one: All night didn’t I call Rachel and you responded?” Leah answered: “Is there a barber without students? (i.e. even the best barber needs a student who will cut his hair; likewise:) Didn’t your father cry out ‘Esav’ and you responded?” (B’resheet Rabbah 70:19)

I’d like to outline the “trail of deception” which dogs the family of Ya’akov throughout Sefer B’resheet. Since we already dealt with the “modified words” of Avraham, his servant and his son, Yitzhak in part I (last week), we’ll begin with Ya’akov himself:

a. Yitzhak is deceived by Ya’akov who is prompted and aided by Rivkah (Ch. 27)

b. Yitzhak is deceived by Rivkah, who claims that she wants to send Ya’akov away for marriage purposes (when it’s really to save his life – 27:46)

c. Lavan fools Ya’akov into marrying Leah before Rachel – thus getting her married off and gaining 7 more “free” years of labor from Ya’akov (29:23-27)

d. Rachel lies to her father about the idols she stole from his house (31:19)

e. Lavan manipulates Ya’akov’s wages “ten times” (31:41)

f. Ya’akov misleads Esav about his plans to join him in Se’ir (33:14)

g. The sons of Ya’akov dupe the citizens of Sh’khem into a mass circumcision – and then pillage the town in revenge for the rape of Dinah (34:13)

h.The brothers fool their father into thinking that Yoseph has been killed by an animal (37:31)

i. Tamar fools Yehudah into thinking that she is a *K’deshah* (38:14-15)

j. Potiphar’s wife lies to her husband, getting Yoseph thrown into the court jail (39:14-20)

k. Yoseph maintains his disguise with his brothers, not revealing their relationship until Yehudah’s bold stand (44:18-34)

l. Yoseph (evidently) has his brothers lie to Pharaoh about their livelihood (46:33-34)

m. The brothers (apparently) lie to Yoseph about Ya’akov’s deathbed wishes (49:17)



In the spirit of the Midrash quoted above – and following the notion of *Midah k’Neged Midah*, it seems clear that at least some of these episodes of deception are causally interrelated. As promised in last week’s essay, we will find that the impact of some of these acts was felt well beyond the chronological parameters of B’resheet – to the furthest ends of Biblical history:

” ‘When Esav heard his father’s words’ (27:34): R. Hanina said: Anyone who claims that God totally forgoes debts will himself be lost; rather, He waits patiently and collects that which is His. In recompense for the one cry that Ya’akov caused Esav to cry out, as it says: ‘When Esav heard his father’s words, he cried out’, he was punished. Where was he punished? In Shushan, as it says: ‘And [Mordechai] cried a great and bitter cry’ (Esther 4:1) (B’resheet Rabbah 67:4)

Before examining the reason behind this causal relationship, I’d like to demonstrate that that relationship indeed exists within these particular instances within Sefer B’resheet.

a) We have already seen that Ya’akov’s masquerade was linked, in the Midrash, to Lavan’s successful deception regarding his daughters. Besides the additional, far-reaching impact felt in the days of Mordechai and Esther, this seems to have set Ya’akov up for not properly recognizing the nature of the relationships between his sons, leading to the Yoseph tragedy. Note how the same animal used to fool Yitzhak into thinking he was eating venison (“for the taste of goat meat is similar to that of venison” – Rashi at 27:9) is used to replicate human blood on Yoseph’s tunic (“[goat’s] blood is similar to that of a human” Rashi at 37:31).

[Parenthetically, and this is an important caveat for the whole topic, we see the Yoseph story as tragic – even though it is not necessarily tragic from every perspective. As Yoseph himself states: “But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it to good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” (50:20) In other words, even though the sale of Yoseph was a tragedy from an internal family perspective, it was a component of salvation and necessary history from the Divine perspective. See B’resheet Rabbah 85:1 – “the tribes were engaged in the sale of Yoseph, Yoseph was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Re’uven was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Ya’akov was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Yehudah was engaged in finding himself a wife – and haKadosh Barukh Hu was engaged in creating the light of the anointed king (David).]

b) The direct result of Rivkah’s “official version” of the reason to send Ya’akov away (to find a wife) is that Esav married into Yishma’el’s family (28:8-9). Note Rashbam’s comments here: “Esav thought that it was on account of his marrying K’na’ani daughters that Ya’akov successfully stole the blessing of Avraham from me. He married the daughter of Yishma’el from the family of Avraham, thinking that now he will merit the legacy of Avraham.” In other words, Rivkah’s misleading statement regarding the reason for sending Ya’akov away motivated Esav to erroneously think that he could get the favored blessing by following that directive in his next marriage.

c) This one is somewhat obvious: By fooling Ya’akov into marrying Leah, The order of Shivtei Kah was inverted so that the eldest was not the son of Rachel, which led to all of the inter-fraternal troubles in Ya’akov’s family (especially regarding Yoseph).

The Midrash explicit links the deception of that fateful night with the deception practiced by the brothers on their father regarding Yoseph’s “disappearance”. (B’resheet Rabbah 84:10).

In addition, this one night of deception (in which both Rachel and Leah were complicit) also kept Ya’akov from returning to K’na’an for anywhere between 7 and 13 years (7 which he worked for Rachel and 6 which he worked to make his own fortune).

d) Rachel’s lie to her father regarding the idols: Note how Ya’akov unwittingly curses his beloved Rachel: “With whom you will find your gods, let him not live. Before our brothers point out what is yours with me, and take it with you. For Ya’akov knew not that Rachel had stolen them.” (31:32). Rashi (ad loc.) cites the Midrash which points to this statement as the curse which led to Rachel’s tragic death.

e) This is actually the “odd man out” on the list; whereas the other instances are exactly that – instances – this is a record of ongoing behavior.

f) Ya’akov implies that he will follow Esav to Se’ir (although note Ramban’s approach at 33:14). Hazal seem to be bothered by this promise, as it is clear that Ya’akov didn’t intend to go to Se’ir at all. As such, they interpret it as a “long-range” promise; Ya’akov will fulfill it in the messianic era: “And saviors shall ascend Mount Tziyyon to judge the Mount of Esav; and the kingdom shall be Hashem’s.” (Ovadiah 21) There doesn’t seem to be a negative repercussion to this misleading statement anywhere throughout B’resheet or later Biblical history.

g) The deception of Sh’khem has implications both forward and backward in history. The first place where Avraham set up an altar when he entered the Land was Sh’khem (12:6); Rashi notes that he prayed there for the welfare of his great-grandchildren who would fight at that place. More significantly, Sh’khem is the location where the brothers cast Yoseph into the pit, which is (as noted above) an act tied up in deception. (Note BT Sanhedrin 102a where this connection is made, albeit linked to the rape, not the deception).

h) The deception of Ya’akov by his sons, which, as we have pointed out, is the consequence of Ya’akov’s deception, becomes the next causal link in the chain: When the brothers sent Yoseph’s tunic, covered with goat’s blood, to father Ya’akov, they declared: “This have we found; *Haker Na* (discern, I beg you) whether it is your son’s coat or not” (37:32).

When Yehudah (generally assumed to be the one who engineered that deception; see 37:26-27) was fooled by Tamar, she revealed herself with that selfsame phrase: “When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, ‘By the man, whose these are, am I with child; and she said, *Haker Na* (Discern, I beg you), whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.’ ” (38:25)

The Gemara ties these two together in the context (and within the discussion of) *Midah k’Neged Midah*:

” ‘Discern, I pray thee’. R. Hama b. Hanina said: With the word ‘discern’ [Yehudah] made an announcement to his father, and with the word ‘discern’ an announcement was made to him. With the word ‘discern’ he made an announcement : ‘Discern now whether it be thy son’s coat or not’; and with the word ‘discern’ an announcement was made to him : ‘Discern, I pray thee, whose are these’.” (BT Sotah 10b)

i) Tamar’s successful deception actually bears fruit (pun intended) which is all positive – but, keep in mind that Yehudah being fooled in this story is the result (as the Midrash attests) of his role in an earlier deception.

j) Although this is not, strictly speaking, within the context of the Ya’akovan family, there is an interesting consequence to Mrs. Potiphar’s duplicitous behavior: Yoseph, whom she so desired, marries her daughter (41:45). Although one could argue that this is the “next best thing” for her – at least her daughter is married to Yoseph – from a perspective of T’nakh law, it is the one marriage which renders a future relationship with Yoseph out of reach. By lying and sending Yoseph to jail, she catalyzed a sequence of events which led to his marriage to her daughter – and her permanent relegation to the role of mother-in-law.

k) The Midrash Tanhuma (Vayyigash #3) makes a startling observation: All of Yoseph’s glory was overshadowed by Yehudah (ultimately, “Mashiach ben Yoseph” will be outlived and overshadowed by “Mashiach ben David” from Yehudah). The Midrash seems to link this with the comparison of Yoseph’s deception as against Yehudah’s forthright stand in his plea for Binyamin. In any case, at this point in B’resheet, most of the episodes are on the “result” end of the chain and Yoseph’s behavior is the direct outgrowth of the brothers’ deception of their father as noted above.

l) This ploy had an unintended but tragic result: By convincing Pharaoh that the brothers were all shepherds, he located them together in Goshen. This was, admittedly, Yoseph’s goal – to keep the family together. Several generations later, however, this made the Egyptian oppression that much easier to enforce: The children of Ya’akov were now identifiable as “them” (as against “us”) – and their “Goshen ghetto” conditions certainly didn’t help in this regard.

m) This last lie is an interesting one. Although not clearly bound within the causal chain which we have identified, it is enlightening and informative from another perspective. The Midrash (D’varim Rabbah 5:14) comments:

Resh Lakish said: Great is peace, for the Torah reported false words in order to establish peace between Yoseph and his brothers. When their father died, they became afraid lest Yoseph take vengeance from them. What did they say? “Your father commanded, before his death, saying: ‘Thus shall you say to Yoseph [Forgive, I beg you now, the trespass of your brothers, and their sin; for they did to you evil]; ‘” and we never find that Ya’akov commanded this, rather, Scripture stated false words for the sake of peace.

In other words, here we find a second example of Divine validation of the questionable behavior which sits at the core of this analysis. As noted last week, God Himself reported inaccurate information to Avraham in order to spare his feelings – and, here, at the end of B’resheet, we find that the Torah validates untrue words which, again, come to promote *Shalom Bayit*.


We have noted an intricate series of deceptions orchestrated by or against members of Ya’akov’s family. We have pointed to Midrashic or scriptural connections which seem to bind them together in a causal sequence.

At this point, we are, perhaps, more aware of the tangled web which is woven throughout the Sefer – but are no wiser as to how to understand it. Our two original questions remain unanswered:

a) If Ya’akov’s behavior in following his mother’s advice and masquerading in order to gain the B’rakhah intended for Esav was justified, why are there such horrible and far-reaching consequences? [If it was not justified, then we have to understand how God could reward and support a blessing gained under the shadow of a crime. We will take the position that his behavior was just and justified – and perhaps leave the other lemma for another discussion.]

b) How do we distinguish between Lavan and Ya’akov? Why are we proud to carry the names of *Beit Ya’akov* and *B’nei Yisra’el*, yet shudder at the name of Lavan?



Regarding our first question, we can find the answer in a broad area of Halakhah: Hilkhot Sh’gagot. The Torah mandates that if a person sins unknowingly, in such a manner that he either wasn’t aware of all of the facts (this really is a piece of *Helev*) or of the law, he must, upon finding out that it was a violation, bring an expiation offering – a Korban Hatat. Why must he bring such an offering? We find an even further expression of this: A person who is guilty of manslaughter, with absolutely no harm intended, is obligated to go into exile at one of the cities of refuge. The Gemara (BT Makkot 10b) understands that this exile is a form of expiation – but from what evil act does he need cleansing?

A full treatment of this issue is well beyond the space allotted for this shiur; suffice it to say that Rabbinic literature, Talmudic as well as post-Talmudic, addresses this issue comprehensively. The many answers are all forms of saying the same thing: That which we do, even unintentionally, leaves a stain on who we are. By way of example, a person could be kidnapped and kept in seclusion with dastardly people for a number of months – clearly against his will. Nevertheless, the time that he spends in the company of these criminals will almost assuredly affect him – his values, how he spends his time, his language and so on. Even though he never meant to share the space of these felons, the reality is that the environment they generate is noxious – and he must, perforce, breathe that same poisonous air.

An example of this is the Halakhah (BT Berakhot 32b) that a Kohen who commits manslaughter may never again perform the Birkat Kohanim, based on the verse: “Your hands are full of blood” (Yeshaya 1:15).This holds even if the killing was unintentional – his hands are stained, nonetheless.

When Ya’akov deceived his father, he was following his mother’s advice, based on a prophecy she received about his destiny. Although his act was justified (see above), it left its mark. He was forced to dip into the world of deception in order to gain what was his by Divine fiat; yet, that descent left its mark and the consequences were felt for the ages. In other words, just because an act is permissible or, better yet, the proper response to a given situation, does not absolve the actor of the consequences of that act. Ya’akov continued the justified and successful manipulation of the truth within the family – but he paid a dear price for it for many years.



And now we come to our final question – how do we distinguish between Ya’akov and Lavan? What gives Ya’akov a higher moral ground?

Perhaps the Midrash, once again, will enlighten and help resolve:

” ‘And Haman said in his heart (Esther 6:6)’ Wicked people are enslaved to their hearts; ‘Esav said in his heart’ (B’resheet 27:41)…but the righteous are the masters of their hearts, as it says: ‘And Hannah was speaking to her heart’ (Sh’muel I 1:13)…and they are similar to their Creator: ‘Hashem said to His heart’. (B’resheet 8:21)” (Esther Rabbah 10:3)

When we note all of the instances where Avraham, his servant, Yitzhak, Rivkah, Ya’akov and Yoseph lied – it was always for an overriding cause, one which was not motivated by self-interest. Ya’akov had more to lose (his life) by deceiving his father to gain the B’rakhah; Yoseph had much to gain by immediately revealing himself to his father etc. Those instances where we understand the act to be morally justified are when a righteous person, in control of his own moral rudder, utilizes deception to promote an overriding good (such as preservation of life, Shalom Bayit or the fulfillment of a prophecy).

Lavan is a very different creature; he is not just “more deceptive”; as pointed out last week, he _is_ deception. In other words, whereas Ya’akov is a free man, able to use deception when warranted, Lavan is shackled by his own deceiving heart.

How do we know the difference? What is the litmus test of “appropriate” deception?

Note that the Avot never used it for self-promotion or gain; Lavan’s deception was always for his own financial benefit. Just as the moral high ground is claimed by the one who has the least to gain from the argument, so it is held by he who knows how to lie, but will never do so for his own self-promotion. He will only manipulate words to promote the greater good, be it familial, communal, national or universal.

Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.