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November 25, 2022 9:40 am

Shabbat Toldot: Is Deception Ever Justified?

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

The Torah is very clear about deception: “Do not deceive or lie to each other” (Leviticus 19.11). But can deception ever be justified? Are there such things as “white lies”?

This week, the Torah itself gives us some examples of the complexity of the issue. Esau is described as a hunter, in contrast to Jacob, who is a simple, uncomplicated character. Being a hunter is in some ways a metaphor for deceit. You hide, disguise yourself, and then go in for the kill. And the rabbis of the Midrash, perhaps unfairly, portray Esau as deceiving his father by pretending to be religious when he was not, and by pretending to show an interest in Isaac, while privately ignoring him.

But then Jacob also deceives his father much more openly. It is true that Jacob protests when his mother asks him to dress up and pretend to be his brother in order to get the blessing from his father. But his mother reassures him, and probably explained that she was doing what had been foretold in God’s name. But Jacob deceives Isaac by disguising himself, and then actually lies. “I am Esau your firstborn,” he says.

Does this mean that the Torah approves of deception? Or that the end justifies the means, since Jacob was clearly the better candidate to lead the family into the future?

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The rabbis of the Midrash seem to recognize that what Jacob did — despite being a crucial patriarch and co-founder of our tradition — was wrong nevertheless. They explain that Jacob had to pay the penalty: Jacob would himself be deceived by his father-in-law, Laban, when it came to marrying Leah instead of Rachel, and over his compensation.

Do as you would be done to. If you cheat, others will cheat you. The amazing thing about the Torah is that it recognizes human frailty. No one is perfect.

Nevertheless, the Torah implies that Rebecca was right. Jacob had the qualities of leadership. Esau was not a suitable heir.

But there’s another kind of deceit here. Rebecca wants to send Jacob away because she has heard Esau saying he wants to kill Jacob. But she does not tell this to her husband, because she knows he would not hear anything against Esau. Instead, she says she wants to send him away to find a wife. Is it right to be slightly dishonest to do the right thing?

While the Torah does not approve of lying or deception, the rabbis did make an exception in the interests of peace and humanity.

The Torah, as always, tells us that life is complicated. It is neither black nor white. It paints large moral canvases and deals with broad issues, but every situation and every case is different, and we need to treat each case individually, by trying to reconcile a practical end with a moral imperative.

Shabbat Shalom

The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.

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