Identity Theft

Rabbi Reuven Mann 

This week’s parsha, Toldot, challenges the limits of our religious tolerance. We tend to create unrealistic images of what our spiritual role models should be like. We assume that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs always tell the truth and never lie. But that is not the case. Avraham lied to the Egyptians and to the Philistines saying that Sarah was not his wife, but his sister. True, he did this for very compelling reasons, but our parsha indicates that this matter went even further.

We read that Yitzchak had gotten older and wanted to confer his blessings upon his oldest son, Eisav, whom he viewed in a favorable light. The verse tells us that, “Yitzchak loved  Eisav because the hunt was in his mouth; but Rivka loved Yaakov.” 

This statement is open to interpretation. Did Yitzchak refrain  from loving Yaakov and did Rivka reject Eisav? Why would Yitzchak refrain from embracing Yaakov, whom,  we are told, spent all his time studying in the “tents of Shem”? And what would motivate Rivka to spurn her firstborn?

My understanding of this cryptic quote is that both parents loved Yaakov, as his pure character was clear to all. The disagreement focused on their attitude to Eisav, who was a master hunter and “man of the field.” Yitzchak believed his bechor was a righteous individual who performed mitzvot and sought to use his material accomplishments for idealistic purposes.

It would appear that Rivka did not share this rosy perspective, but remained skeptical, waiting until Eisav revealed his true character. Thus it was that she kept close watch over Yitzchak’s interactions with Eisav. It would appear that she was concerned that Eisav might seek to usurp the rightful spiritual inheritance of Yaakov. When it became apparent to her that Yitzchak was planning to confer his blessings upon the older son, she took measures to thwart his intentions.

To prepare for the blessing, Yitzchak instructed Eisav to hunt  an animal and prepare a delicious meal according to his fathers’s taste. Rivka saw this as her opportunity. She implored Yaakov to seize the blessings from Eisav by stealing the identity of his brother. Accordingly, she prepared the meal as Yitzchak preferred and dressed Yaakov in hairy skins to give him the physical texture of his brother.

Yaakov, pretending to be Eisav, appeared before his nearly blind father, who asked him who he was. Said Yaakov, “It is I, Eisav, your firstborn.” This seems clearly to be a lie. Yet Rashi appears to indicate otherwise. He interprets Yaakov’s words  as meaning, “I -am the one who is bringing this to you- and Eisav, he is your firstborn.”

This is a very complex and challenging Rashi. Of course, the words in any statement that is a blatant lie can be reconfigured so they emerge as truthful, but don’t we have to judge the utterance  at face value? Yaakov clearly conveyed to his father that he was Eisav, and that is how Yitzchak understood his declaration. Does it make a lie any less egregious if we can insert pauses between the words and twist their meaning?

I do not believe that was the intent of our great Bible commentator. He does not mean to say that Yaakov didn’t tell a lie. He, in fact, did. However, Rashi is telling us a deep truth about the phenomenon of fraudulence. It is generally prohibited for two reasons. The first is that we owe people the truth and cannot purposely mislead them by offering false information.

However, there is more to the matter than that, as the Torah says, “Stay far away from falsity.” The most fundamental task in life is to elevate the soul by pursuing true knowledge. Every departure from the truth has a harmful effect upon the soul. The temptation to depart from reality and obtain desired outcomes by cleverly manipulating information is quite alluring.

In fact, the tendency to dissimulate makes its appearance very early on. Children quickly learn how they can maneuver their parents to avoid punishment or to gain advantages by clever distortions. This propensity remains with us as get older.  In fact, the skill of talking your way out of difficult circumstances is one that is generally admired and prized. If someone is stopped by a police officer for some infraction, and he cleverly avoids a ticket through some narrative he has invented, he will not tire of retelling the tale of his coup to anyone who will listen.

Therefore, it is not just a matter of having permission to tell an untruth. There is a spiritual danger in merely recounting the fiction, even if we are obligated to do it. In consequence, we must take internal measures to lessen the impact of the exposure to mendacity. Rashi therefore  means that when Yaakov was telling the lie, he was psychologically disassociating himself from it. He kept focusing on the fact that Eisav was truly Yitzchak’s son, to insure that he derived no enjoyment from the pretense.

There is no higher value on the Jewish spectrum of virtue than truth. We must do everything in our power to be excruciatingly honest to others and to ourselves. We must scrupulously avoid any shading of the emet (truth). But we must also know when we are obliged to dissemble to preserve a great ideal. 

When this is necessary, we must proceed with great care. The body might be lying, but the soul must distance itself from its harmful effects. Man’s goal in life is to pursue truth and to live by it in relations with our fellow man and before Hashem. May we merit to attain it.

Shabbat shalom. 

Dear Friends,

In this time of social isolation, we should seek ways to avoid boredom by staying occupied with meaningful activity. The world of virtual reality allows us to stay in touch with friends and attend all kinds of classes available online. But that can only take you so far. 

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