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Toldot | “Your Brother Came with Guile and Took Away your Blessing”

Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Summarized by David Oren
Translated by David Strauss


At the end of Parashat Toldot, we read about Yitzchak’s blessings to his sons. This event affected not only Yitzchak and his sons, but also the entire course of the book of Bereishit from this point on.

Why was it necessary to lie to Yitzchak?

Before we consider the significance and the consequences of Yaakov stealing the blessing, let us take a step back: Why did Rivka have to lie to Yitzchak?

At the end of Parashat Chayei Sara, which we read just one week ago, an account is given of the meeting of Yitzchak and Rivka. The meeting opens with the primal-instinctive reaction on the part of Rivka at the moment that she first saw Yitzchak: "She fell from the camel" (Bereishit 24:64). The Netziv notes a difference between Sara and Rivka, and between their respective relationships with Avraham and Yitzchak:

"And she fell from the camel." Out of great fear and terror. It is true that she did not know whom she feared, and had she not sat with the servant on the same camel, but rather sat behind him until she saw that afterwards the man walked toward the servant, and stood and talked with him like any other person, she would have calmed down to the point that when she would later be told who the man is, the fear would already have left her. But since she sat with the servant, and in the fear, she asked the servant… "Who is that man" whom I fear?…

Therefore, when she heard that he was her husband, "she took her veil, and covered herself," out of great fear and embarrassment, as if she understood that she was not worthy of being his wife, and from then on fear was fixed in her heart. She was not with Yitzchak as Sara was with Avraham, and as Rachel was with Yaakov. When they had a complaint about them, they were not embarrassed to speak before them, which was not the case with Rivka. (Ha'amek Davar, Bereishit 24:64-65) 

The Netziv describes the awe and reverence that characterized the relationship between Yitzchak and Rivka throughout their lives, a characteristic that sets their relationship apart from those of the other patriarchs and matriarchs.

Avraham and Sara grew up together, journeyed to the Land of Israel together, and wandered together, as Avraham said: "when God caused me to wander from my father's house" (Bereishit 20:13) – and therefore, they conduct themselves and feel like equal partners, and "when they had a complaint about them, they were not embarrassed to speak before them." Thus, when Sara gives Hagar to Avraham, and Hagar insults her, Sara turns to Avraham and opens with a harsh statement: "The abuse I suffer is your fault" (Bereishit 16:5); thus also when Sara sees Yishmael mocking, she demands that he be sent away (Bereishit 21:9-10). Later, the relationship between Avraham and Sara is damaged at the time of the Akeida, when Avraham does not share with Sara the purpose of his going with Yitzchak, and Chazal even say that when Sara heard about the Akeida, her soul departed and she died (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Vayera 22-23): she was unable to live in a world without trust between her and Avraham.

In contrast to them, Yitzchak was forty years old when he married Rivka, and according to the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 65,10), he was also blind; he had already passed the spiritual peak of the Akeida. Yitzchak was a holy man immersed in himself and his spiritual world. His connection to Rivka was not built on a mutual relationship. Such distance between spouses does not necessarily indicate a defect in the marriage itself, and can develop over the years. For example, when one of the spouses ages (as a cognitive matter, not necessarily a chronological one) faster than the other, and their inner worlds move apart.

In this situation, Rivka felt distanced from her husband from the moment they first met, thus she cannot talk to Yitzchak about his mistake in wanting to bless Esav. Instead, she is forced to act by way of a lie. This is how the Netzivexplains why that initial meeting between Yitzchak and Rivka is described in detail:

All this serves as an introduction to the story that will come in Parashat Toldot, that Yitzchak and Rivka were divided in their opinions, but Rivka did not find the courage to persuade Yitzchak of her opinion with firm and convincing words that she knew the truth, that Esav only “hunted with his mouth” [i.e., was deceiving his father]. And similarly at the time of the blessings. All this was brought about by God [so] that the blessings should reach Yaakov precisely in this manner, as will be explained in its place. Had Rivka been with her husband like Sara and Rachel were with their husbands, it would not have come about in this manner. Everything happened in accordance with Divine Providence from the outset, that Rivka should reach Yitzchak at a time when she would be terrified by him, and the end worked out as God had intended. (Ha'amek Davar, Bereishit 24:65)

What is the "truth"?

Elsewhere, the Netziv explains that with the stealing of the blessings, "the time came for Yaakov our father to use the quality of falsehood and cunning," and he establishes that this falls into the category of "a sin for its own sake, which in its time is as great as a mitzva itself" (Harchev Davar, Bereishit 27:9).

The notion of "a sin for its own sake" is not entirely clear. In order to properly understand it, we turn to the following midrash about the creation of man:

Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create Adam, the first man, the ministering angels divided into various factions and groups. Some of them said: "Let him not be created," and some of them said: "Let him be created." That is what is written: "Kindness and truth met; righteousness and peace touched" (Tehillim 85:11). Kindness said: "Let him be created, as he performs acts of kindness." Truth said: "Let him not be created, as he is entirely full of lies." Righteousness said: "Let him be created, as he performs acts of righteousness." Peace said: "Let him not be created, as he is entirely full of discord." What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took Truth and cast it down to earth. That is what is written: "You cast truth earthward" (Daniel 8:12). The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He: "Master of the universe, why are You demeaning Your very seal [i.e., truth]? Let Truth ascend from the earth!” That is what is written: “Truth will spring from the earth" (Tehillim 85:12). (Bereishit Rabba 8,5)

Let us set the rest of the midrash aside, and focus on its end: What is the meaning of the statement: "Let Truth ascend from the earth?” If man is "entirely full of lies," how can he raise the truth from the earth?

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that there are two types of truth: heavenly and earthly. The heavenly truth is absolute and unwavering. What is true is true, and what is not is not. In contrast, earthly truth – the new truth, through which God created man – is a truth that considers the circumstances. It is a truth that understands that sometimes, in order to achieve the right results, you have to "twist" the heavenly truth a little.

This distinction is also very relevant to the stealing of the blessings. Rivka knows that Yitzchak is certainly not really interested in blessing the evil Esav, who scorned the birth-right and is portrayed as a bestial man of the field. His plan stems from the fact that Esav pretends to be righteous; it is clear to her that if Yitzchak understood Esav’s true nature, he would not want to bless him. Therefore, Rivka chooses to deceive Yitzchak, against the heavenly truth, because she chooses the path of earthly truth.

"A sin for its own sake"

But even a sin for its own sake is, ultimately, a sin. Indeed, lying, even for good purposes, has a price: from here on, throughout the entire book of Bereishit, the lie is present, accompanying everything that happens.

It starts with Yaakov, who is deceived by Lavan with the switching of Rachel and Leah. How could Yaakov argue against this deception when it is precisely what he did to his father? He pretended to be his brother, and Leah impersonated her sister. So too regarding the manner of Leah's impersonation, by way of Rachel's passing of the tokens of identification to Leah (Megila 13b), Yaakov has no grounds for complaint; he would be immediately reminded that he had donned goat skins to deceive his father.

This crisis, at the beginning of Yaakov's relationship with his wives, haunts him throughout the book and has a severe impact on their lives together. When the Torah states: "And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb; and Rachel was barren" (Bereishit 29:31), it is possible to understand that there was no actual hatred, but only that Leah was loved less than Rachel – however, the plain sense of Scripture is always meaningful, and the plain sense of this verse indicates that Leah was indeed hated.

I once heard another shocking example of that impact from my father, Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. When Yehuda is speaking to Yosef (before he understands that he is his brother), he cites Yaakov's words: "You know that my wife bore me two sons" (Bereishit 44:27). By citing this statement, he essentially proclaims that he knows that as far as his father, Yaakov, is concerned, Leah's sons are not considered his children. "My wife" – there is only one.

Fortunately, the saga of the relationship between Yaakov's wives and children finally comes to an end in Parashat Vayigash, when Yehuda "bangs on the table" and becomes a guarantor for Binyamin, which in turn leads to Yosef's making his true identity clear to his brothers.

But falsehood is not only found in Lavan's relationship with Yaakov, and its effects are not limited to the tensions between Rachel and Leah. First of all, the deception between Lavan and Yaakov is mutual: when Yaakov decides to return to the land of Israel, he "steals the heart of Lavan" (Bereishit 31:20) and does not inform him of his plan; at the same time, Rachel – with good intentions, of course – steals her father's terafim.  Yaakov's departure thus takes place on a very jarring note, and according to Chazal, this is what caused Rachel’s death (Bereishit Rabba 74,9). As stated, the trend of lying and deception also finds expression in the relationship between Yosef and his brothers: beginning with the sale of Yosef, which the brothers present to Yaakov as Yosef's death; continuing with Yosef's pretense before his brothers, which culminates in the burying of Yosef's goblet in Binyamin's sack; and ending in Parashat Vayechi, when the brothers fear that Yosef will harm them, and so they tell him that "your father commanded before his death" (Bereishit 50:16) that he should not harm them – and we have no way to know whether there really was such a command, or whether it is just another link in the chain of family lies.

We see then that the employment of "earthly" truth exacts a heavy price, which Yaakov and his family are forced to pay throughout the book. Was the gain worth the cost?

When should one choose earthly truth?

Another formulation of the question is: When is it desirable to use earthly truth, and when not? If a sin for its own sake entails such great risks, when is it at all appropriate to take this dangerous path?

In his responsa, the Netziv discusses the question of when it is permissible to cause controversy in order to remove a rabbi, or one who holds another Torah office, for acting improperly in his position. He sets two conditions for removal:

Only God, who knows man's thoughts, knows whether the second rabbi is causing controversy for the sake of a mitzva – because the first rabbi is not acting properly – or is doing it for his own benefit. Therefore, he is an interested party and is disqualified from judging on the basis of some claim of a householder that the rabbi is not acting properly, until the matter is clarified by a qualified court that the rabbi is not acting properly.

Even then one, who guards his soul should distance himself from that place of danger to the soul, for it is possible that causing controversy regarding the first rabbi will cause even greater evil than the evil caused by the first rabbi. (Responsa Meishiv Davar, part II, no. 9)

The Netziv demands that the "controversy causer" not have a personal interest in the matter, and in addition, he must ascertain that the price of the dispute not exceed the damage caused by the present situation.

The Netziv finds a source for these considerations in Chazal's exposition of the verse: "Therefore, they who speak in parables say: Come you to Cheshbon!" (Bamidbar 21:27).

I am accustomed to explain that which is stated in Bava Batra (78b): "What is the meaning of the verse: 'Therefore, they that speak in parables say: Come you to Cheshbon!' – 'They who speak in parables [ha-moshelim]’ means those who rule [moshelim] their evil inclinations; 'come you to Cheshbon' means: come, let us consider the account [cheshbon] of the world, the loss incurred by the fulfilment of a mitzva against the reward secured by its observance, and the gain gotten by a transgression against the loss it involves."

If we explain that we are dealing with mitzvot and transgressions between man and God, it is not at all understandable – if they rule their evil inclinations, what need is there to make an accounting? After all, even without calculating punishments, it is appropriate to rule one's evil inclination and act in accordance with the word of God! And furthermore, what is the gain of a transgression against spiritual punishment in the world-to-come?

Rather, Chazal are not speaking here about matters between man and God… but about matters of the ways of the world. There is one who makes a dispute or persecutes a person for the sake of a mitzva; even though he knows that making controversy or persecuting a man of Israel involves a transgression, nevertheless, he calculates that it is a transgression for its own sake, that is, for the sake of a mitzva, and he will receive a reward…

This is what Chazal mean when they say: "those who rule their evil inclination," that is, that they derive no benefit from committing this transgression for its own sake. And afterwards, come let us consider the account of the world; the loss incurred by the fulfilment of a mitzva against the reward secured by its observance, and it can be that the loss incurred is greater than the reward, and the gain gotten by a transgression performed for its own sake against the loss that will arrive afterwards. (Responsa Meishiv Davar, part II, no. 9)

The Netziv explains that Chazal's demand to consider "the account of the world" certainly does not pertain to matters between man and God, but rather to wrongdoing between one man and his fellow: in these matters, one must carefully examine whether the solution will not cause greater damage.

Elsewhere, he also explains the story of Yaakov and Esav in this manner:

They say in [Midrash] Rabba that Yaakov our father was punished for causing Esav to cry with a great and bitter cry. This brought about that Mordekhai cried out with a great and bitter cry. It seems difficult that he was punished for Esav's cry more so than for having caused Yitzchak his father to tremble exceedingly!

But the idea is that when performing a transgression for its own sake, one must be very careful not to derive any benefit from it. And it is not similar to one who performs a mitzva, for even if he also derives pleasure from it, the mitzva stands in its place. This is not the case with a transgression performed for its own sake, regarding which the pleasure from it that reaches the body is of necessity a transgression…

Yaakov did not derive any pleasure whatsoever from the transgression that he performed for its own sake, when Yaakov trembled, and he certainly was greatly distressed about this, but he was forced by circumstances beyond his control. On the other hand, with respect to Esav's cry, he was happy in his heart, and therefore he was punished, for it was caused by the transgression of lying, and it is forbidden to derive pleasure from this. (Harchev Davar, Bereishit 27:9)

The Netziv explains that in any case of a moral dilemma where one chooses the direction of "transgression for its own sake," it is forbidden to derive benefit from the transgression even though the transgression itself is justified. Yaakov did not derive benefit from the stealing itself, and certainly not from the distress that he caused Yitzchak; therefore, he was not punished for these things. However, he did derive pleasure from Esav's cry, and therefore he was punished for it (see Bereishit Rabba 67,4).

Conclusion: the price of a lie

Another distinction can be proposed regarding the use of lying, even for good purposes. A central message that emerges in the book of Bereishit is that when Yaakov deceives people outside his family, it may not be ideal, but it can end well. For example, despite his contention with Lavan, he declares: "I lived with Lavan, and yet I observed the 613 commandments" (Rashi, Bereishit 32:5). In contrast, when deception is carried out in the family, it causes devastating damage – as in the story of the sale of Yosef.

The very need to steal the blessings teaches us that a relationship between spouses that lacks mutuality and openness is a recipe for trouble. When it comes to choosing a spouse, one need not choose a Rosh Yeshiva, or a rebbe, but a friend for life. A Rosh Yeshiva must be a Torah authority, whereas a spouse must be a nice person with whom one can build a close relationship.

We further learn, from the lies that run through the book of Bereishit, that lying for a good purpose is indeed justified in some cases but will exact heavy prices, which are not always worth the gain. Also, one should always consider whether the "transgression for its own sake" is indeed "for its own sake" in an absolute manner (as opposed to a mitzva, which still has value even when it is not performed entirely "for its own sake").

Finally, we learn that deceit is morally problematic in itself. Apart from the damage that can be caused by lying, there is a moral problem with deception, and every morally wrong act has consequences – as the Ramban says about Sara's sin when she tormented Hagar, which in his opinion caused God to give her "a son who would be a wild man, to afflict the seed of Avraham and Sara with all kinds of affliction" (Ramban, Bereishit 16:6). Every wrongdoing – even if it is justified – bears a price, a price that must be taken into account every time a question arises regarding "matters of the ways of the world."

[This sicha was delivered by Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein on Shabbat Parashat Toldot 5780.]

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