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Jacob: Simpleton or Sophisticate? (Toldot -11/30/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Jacob:  Simpleton or Sophisticate?
You’re an excellent judge of character. Would you say that the young man described below is an innocent simpleton or a cunning sophisticate?
  1. When his older brother comes home from a day of hunting, exhausted and hungry, he begs him for a bowl of soup that he sees boiling on the stove. The youth concedes to give him the soup but only if the elder brother sells him his firstborn rights.
  2. When his aged, blind father wants to bless the older son before he dies, the younger son sneaks in, deceives his father by posing as his older brother, and steals his brother’s blessing.
  3. Arriving at his uncle’s home to find a wife, he makes a deal for the gorgeous younger daughter, even though it’s understood, that the older daughter always marries first. (He didn’t get away with that one!)
  4. While shepherding his uncle’s sheep, he makes a deal that his wages will be the newborn striped sheep; all of the non-striped sheep will belong to his uncle. To make this more profitable for himself, while the sheep are breeding, he places striped sticks in front of them. The sheep are all born striped.
  5. Afraid that his father-in-law will not allow him to return home with his wives and property, he flees in the dead of night while the oblivious father/grandfather is far away shearing his sheep.
  6. Wanting to distance himself from his brother, he tells him to go ahead, that he and his young, slow-moving family will catch up to him later. The younger brother never proceeds to visit his older brother.
Would you say that this younger brother/nephew is a naive simple person?  I wouldn’t either. Objectively, I’d say he’s ambitious, conniving and perhaps even immoral.
The Torah describes the two brothers, Jacob and Esau, in our parsha of Toldot in Genesis 25: 17,
 וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם ישֵׁ֖ב אֹֽהָלִֽים:
“And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents.”
The Hebrew word תָּ֔ם “tam”, doesn’t exactly mean innocent. It is usually translated as perfect or without blemish. Rashi, the paragon of all Biblical commentators, interprets it here as innocent, saying: “He was not an expert in all these matters of deception. Like his heart, so was his mouth. A person who is not astute at deceiving is called תָּם, innocent.” The obvious question to Rashi then is, “why does this simple, unsophisticated man conduct so many sly and stealthy acts”?
One could say that Jacob was a man who rose to the occasion, even when it went against his nature, and performed acts that needed to be done for the betterment of his family and the future of Israel and the world. Each one of these acts was a case where the ends justify the means. Even though it went against Jacob’s grain to perform these acts, Jacob forced himself to go beyond his comfort zone and because of that, he’s a role model for all future generations.
The main problem with this explanation is that the predominant behavior we see from Jacob in the Torah are incidents when Jacob acts deceptively instead of purely and naively. Furthermore, it seems that trickiness is a family trait. We see it in his father and grandfather when Abraham and Isaac are both fearful of the consequences of being married to beautiful women, they are quick to claim that these women are their sisters.
We see it in his sons when his daughter is kidnapped by a local prince. Jacob’s sons convince the prince and his people to circumcise themselves so that they can all marry each other and become one big happy family. Three days later, when the men’s pain is at its peak, Jacob’s sons go into the town and kill everyone.
Perhaps, תָּ֔ם, tam, does not mean innocent, as Rashi claims, but rather, perfect, for in those times and locale, the ideal leader is someone who can be adept and deceitful when needed.
King David, the great leader of Jerusalem of old, exhibited these traits. David is someone who has tremendous love for God and the Jewish people, but the stories of his deceptive behavior are also well known (the case of Bat Sheva is just one of them).
Likewise, in modern Israel, deception has served the nation well. During the War of Independence, lacking tanks and jeeps, the Freedom Fighters drove their jeeps backward and forwards to mimic the sounds of an intimidating fleet on the move.
The miracles of the Six-Day War were accomplished through an ingenious pre-emptive attack and the modification of the airplanes for greater fuel capacity so that what appeared to be an ineffective airforce was actually one of great ability.
During the second intifada, in order to cut the money supply for terrorist attacks, the Israeli army crossed into Ramallah and robbed a bank, stealing terrorist funds and locating the sources of funding for various terrorist organizations. It raised the ire of President George W. Bush and the entire EU, but it helped curb future attacks and eventually became the model for counterterrorist activity around the world.
Breaking the rules and being deceptive may be necessary traits for all successful leaders, then and now (no comment on Ukraine!). Perhaps when the stories of Jacob were told thousands of years ago, they venerated Jacob as much for his deftness as for his piety.
On the other hand, Jacob’s deceptions have accompanied the Jewish people for millennia. Whether we actively emulated Jacob’s behavior or not, we know what the connotation “Jew” has meant over the years. In contrast, nowadays, the Jewish people have become noted for their intellectual and artistic achievements, economic enterprises, and acts of social justice, among many other excellent traits.
Jacob, whether he was innately naive or sly, an overachiever or an ambitious go-getter, bequeathed to us that at times, we may need to follow a path of deception. I the long run though, I suggest we follow the path of described by his descendent, Michah (6:8): “To live justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”

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