Vayeitzei - Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics By Rabbi Eli Birnbaum
Kim Jong-Un has been in the news quite a bit recently. From twitter exchanges resembling playground scraps with the ‘old dotard’ president of the United States, to testing intercontinental ballistic missiles in international waters, the belligerent ‘little rocket man’ dominates headlines and airwaves throughout the world.
Part of the secret behind the Kims’ successful rise to and conservation of absolute power is the vast propaganda machine that serves to keep the population in a sustained state of intellectual bewilderment. Amongst the ‘facts’ that one might encounter on a visit to the insular People’s Republic are:
Kim Jong-Il holds the world record for the best round of golf ever played. Perhaps a topic slightly dearer to President Trump than nuclear warfare, Jong-Il scored 38-under par on a regulation golf course, comfortably beating Rhein Gibson’s 16-under record in Edmond, Oklahoma. The ‘Beloved Leader’ is also claimed to have invented the beefburger (or ‘double bread with meat’), cured Ebola and composed six full-length operas. Fortunately, his acumen appears to have been passed-down to Jong-Un, who in 2015 scaled the 2800 metre-slopes of Mount Paektu wearing a suit and flat shoes.
Citing the verse in Psalms 15, the Talmud lists the characteristics of a person who is deemed ‘worthy’ to “dwell in the House of G-d”. Among these is the trait “and deceit does not cross his speech”. Surprisingly, the Talmud traces this quality to Jacob. Somewhat more surprisingly, the verse given to ‘prove’ this link is cited from the prelude to last week’s infamous episode of the ‘stolen blessings’, when Jacob says: “Perhaps my father will feel me and I will be as a mocker in his eyes!”.
Forgive the pun, but the truth of the matter is that Jacob’s life appears to be completely at-odds with this assessment. Lies and deceit cast a controversial shadow over the portions of Toldot and Vayeitzei which, like a misdirection double-act, paint a very different picture of this ‘Man of Truth’.
In his youth, Jacob quietly acquiesces to the deal of the century, allowing Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. That soup may have come with free granary bread. And maybe even some butter. But it was never, ever anything close to the worth of the purchase Jacob was to receive in return. As we discussed last week, Esau’s shocking disregard for his destiny is the true tragedy of that whole episode. But insidiously simmering beneath the surface is the fact that Jacob plants the idea into Esau’s famished head in the first place – “Sell as of this day your birthright!” - and then conspicuously avoids trying to talk his brother out of it once it became clear that he was thinking with his stomach.
Fast forward to the end of last week’s portion and Jacob stands by his father’s death bed, holding delicacies that he pretended to prepare and clothed in goat-hide treated to make him seem hairier than he actually is, uttering those fateful words… “I am Esau your firstborn”.
And finally to this week’s portion. Jacob has tended his uncle Laban’s flocks for 14 long and difficult years. In that time, he endured scorching hot days and frigid evenings, caring for the sheep in his charge so precisely that not a single animal miscarried. And now, laden with wives and children, he feels that the time is right to finally return home to his parents and inherit the land purchased for soup and granary bread. But before he departs, Jacob and Laban sit down to discuss the terms of his severance pay.
Six years pass…
“And Laban’s sons said: ‘Jacob has taken all that belonged to our father, and from that which our father owned he has amassed his wealth!’” (Genesis 31:1). Laban’s fortune has been decimated, the subsequence of an ingenious selective breeding program implemented with extraordinary exactness by Jacob. In an acrimonious farewell, Jacob and his family took everything they had and fled in the direction of the Holy Land, not telling Laban that they were going; taking his grandchildren with them and stealing away into the dead of the night like a Biblical Family Von-Trapp.
Quite unlike the image presented by the Talmud, every major juncture of Jacob’s life is embroiled in choices that seem unethical at best, downright dishonest at worst. Jacob’s inheritance, wealth and destiny are constructed on the extremely shaky edifice of his father, brother and uncle’s naivety. How can he be reconciled with the ‘recipient of Truth’ celebrated in Micah 7:20? And beyond this, why reference the moment of the most acute deception to ‘prove’ this point?! True enough, Jacob raised a moral concern with his mother before entering Isaac’s chambers; but he went ahead with it anyway!
Rabbi Berel Wein offers a fascinating insight into this inconsistency. Amongst the innumerable brilliant answers to this question, this one resonated with me the most. Why? Because it doesn’t whitewash any of the simplest meanings of the verses cited.
The choices Jacob makes throughout his life; the sub-total of the situations he finds himself in, all point towards a single idea:
Sometimes, life presents us with a fork in the road whose first direction leads to a rock and the other to a hard place. And there we stand, compelled to choose yet entirely unwilling to act, knowing that whatever we decide, the outcome will be negative. In chess, they call it ‘Zugzwang’, a realisation that the best move is not to move, as doing so will inevitably weaken your position.
Jacob’s life challenges us: When you face a lose-lose situation; when you are confronted with the choice to deceive your elderly father on the one hand, or concede the status of the Chosen People to your hedonistic, uncaring brother on the other. When you face the option to leave Laban’s house in utter secrecy, or with pomp and ceremony but idolatrous going-home-presents for your children. When you purchase the birthright for a meagre bowl of soup, yet could’ve talked your brother out of it and left the Promised Land as a pawn for his imperialistic ruthlessness….
How do you choose?
Ironically, it is Esau’s angel who provides the answer…
“And he [the angel] said, ‘Let me go, for dawn has broken!’. And he [Jacob] said, ‘I will not go unless you bless me.’ And he said, ‘What is your name?’” (Genesis 32:27-28).
The two have been wrestling from dusk to dawn. Esau’s angel is clearly panicked, yet won’t bless his adversary until he hears the answer to what is a seemingly mundane question. He knows Jacob’s name and who he is…why else attack him unprovoked?! Unless the purpose of the question is something entirely different. I, angel of God, know full well who you are, but...
Do you know who you are?
There are two kinds of truth; cognitive and existential. The former concerns itself with the scientific facts. The latter, with the deepest level of introspection: Who am I?
This level of truth is unshakable. Without it, our identity unravels and we are left drifting listlessly from fad to craze to mid-life-crisis to bitter retirement and lonely death. When met with a lose-lose situation, scientific truth screams ‘Zugzwang!’ Don’t move! Remain passive and allow the moment to pass. This is precisely Jacob’s protest to his mother: What if my father notices? Best that I don’t act! But act he does. Existential truth pleads ‘Move! And take the pain of the consequences!’. Jacob knows that the core of his identity is to be the progenitor of a nation that will rewrite human history, and this knowledge insists, with a burning urgency, that he must act.
 Tracate Makkot, 24a.
 Genesis 27:12
 Genesis 25:29-34
 Genesis 27:1-41
 Genesis 31:38-40
 For a thorough and scientific understanding of this episode, see: https://www.scienceandchristianbelief.org/serve_pdf_free.php?filename=SCB+13-1+Pearson.pdf
 Heard from former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks