Torah from Around the World #193

By: Rabbi Megan Doherty, Senior Jewish Fellow
and Associate Rabbi,

Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale

, Connecticut, USA

Jacob the Liar

“He’s a heel,” my grandfather Fed
used to say, describing someone who was untrustworthy in business or in
friendship. Perhaps as a result of my grandfather’s teaching, I work very hard
to be someone who is trusted by others, and I try equally hard to be honest
with myself. The central character of Parashat Vayishlach is our ancestor
Jacob, whose name in English translates to “heel”. And Jacob, in our
stories, is indeed a ‘heel’ – a protagonist almost incapable of telling the
truth, whether to those closest to him or even (perhaps especially) to himself.

In addition to the famous story of Jacob’s
trickery in acquiring the blessing of the firstborn from his father Isaac (a
blessing which should have gone to his brother Esau), Jacob lies to his brother
Esau during and even after their famed reconciliation. He sends one messenger
after another with gifts ahead of him to his brother, instructing each one to
say in turn: “I am Jacob’s servant, and Jacob himself is right behind
me.” Jacob does not arrive until the following day. After Jacob and Esau
reunite and embrace, and Esau has met Jacob’s family and invited them to
journey with him, Jacob agrees, saying “I will go after you to Seir, and
meet you there.” He then promptly takes his wives and his children and
goes in the opposite direction. The Bible has no record of him ever going to
Seir. As much as Jacob may want to reconnect with his brother, he can’t seem to
break the pattern of misdirection and mistruth which was established in their

When Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, names
their second son “Ben-oni – the son of my pain” immediately before
dying in childbirth, Jacob covers over Rachel’s sorrow and difficulty by renaming
the child Benjamin or “Ben-yamin – the son of my right hand”. I
understand that covering-over as a form of lying: Jacob is unwilling to
acknowledge the painful truth of how his youngest son came in to the world.

According to the rabbis of our tradition,
Jacob’s self-delusions reach almost ridiculous heights. In Genesis Rabbah
79:10, we read: “And he called him, God: Jacob said, ‘You are the God of
the upper worlds, and I am god of the lower worlds.'” Jacob is so
convinced by his own version of reality that he takes for himself the
responsibilities and identity of the Divine. When we lie to others, we open the
door to lying to ourselves. Living with untruths can give us, like Jacob, an
exaggerated sense of our own power and self-worth, or it can allow us to be
convinced that we are smaller and less consequential than we actually are.

Among the lists of Esau’s descendants in this
parasha we find Amalek – the original metaphorical/mythical ancestor of the
enemies of the Jewish people who we are instructed to ‘remember to forget’ at
every opportunity. Our bitterest enemies can come from our closest
relationships, or even, perhaps from our own hearts and minds. Amalek, his
descendant Haman (the villain of the Purim story), and all they represent
emerge not from some distant or alien Other, but rather from the same womb as
our ancestor Jacob. The core of this division, the root of this enmity, comes
from the lack of truth between Jacob and Esau. Lying to those closest to us
causes injuries and breaks relationships in ways from which it is almost
impossible to come back. Lying to ourselves also causes injuries, although they
can be harder to see. If we lie to ourselves enough, we end up with a lack of
trust in our core being, in our own instincts, judgments and choices.

Jacob ultimately comes together again with
Esau to bury their father Isaac. At the end of his life, finally granted the
opportunity for open and honest connection with his whole family, he offers
blessings to his children which reflect their true natures. For Jacob, finding
his way to truth requires a whole generation’s worth of travail and tragedy.

We can learn from Jacob and choose a
different path. We can face up to our fears with generosity and compassion, we
can become active members of communities which nurture us by honestly
reflecting both our missteps and our triumphs, and reserving space and time in
our lives to check in with our innermost hearts – in this moment, am I doing
the right thing for me? For my family? For the world?

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