The Torah’s heroes are individuals of impeccable character and quality, entirely above reproach, and we cannot comprehend the character of the people they were. However, that being said, the Torah tells us stories in a very deliberate way, and we can and should talk about the Torah’s characterization in these stories.
Our ancestor Yakov was someone who had to fight and grind throughout his life to get what he was owed; nothing ever came easy. We read the stories of his trials, the archetype and model of a Jew in exile, and take comfort and strength from his immense grit and perseverance throughout the turbulent times in his life.
But some incidents give us pause.
In particular, the incident where he masqueraded as his brother Esau to his blind and aging father to appropriate the blessing intended for Esau.
The Jewish People are called the Upright Tribe – שבטי ישורון. We take our common name from Yakov himself, a person renowned for being straight – ישר-אל. But Yakov tricked his father into giving him something that, although intangible, was meant for another.
How do we justify Yakov as honest and upright?
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights a reading of how the story unfolded, noting that Rivka is the instigator of the entire course of events:
וְרִבְקָה אָמְרָה אֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּנָהּ לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת־אָבִיךָ מְדַבֵּר אֶל־עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ לֵאמֹר׃ הָבִיאָה לִּי צַיִד וַעֲשֵׂה־לִי מַטְעַמִּים וְאֹכֵלָה וַאֲבָרֶכְכָה לִפְנֵי ה’ לִפְנֵי מוֹתִי׃וְעַתָּה בְנִי שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי לַאֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מְצַוָּה אֹתָךְ… – Rivka had been listening as Yitzchak spoke to his son Esau. When Esau had gone out into the open to hunt game to bring home, Rivka said to her son Yakov, “I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with God’s approval, before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you…” (27:6-8)
Rivka tells Yakov to act as if he were Esau, and Yakov responds that he is uncomfortable doing so:
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק׃ אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה וְלֹא בְרָכָה׃ – Yakov answered his mother Rivka, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am smooth-skinned. If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing!”
There is an unbridgeable tension here between deception versus honor and loyalty. Quite correctly, Yakov expresses his discomfort with Rivka’s idea, precisely because he is not a trickster – וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ. But at this point, Rivka pulls the proverbial ace:
וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי וְלֵךְ קַח־לִי – But his mother said to him, “My son, any curse would be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.” (27:13)
At this juncture, Rivka exercises her maternal authority to silence Yakov’s protest, and the story goes on. We can continue to look up Yakov because he is not a crook; he is obedient to his mother.
While this is a compelling reading, it doesn’t answer the crux of the problem. While it serves the purposes of salvaging Yakov’s image, Rivka becomes tarnished instead, and we must ask the same question of Rivka, only it looks substantially worse now; she has forced her son to trick her husband – his father – to take something intended for his brother.
To reinforce the question, what exactly is the point of the ruse here? It’s so incredibly pointless, if only because it is sure to be foiled the very next time Esau speaks to his father!
Moreover, to the extent we can understand how blessings work, why would we think it even works that way? The blessing is God’s to bestow – is God also taken by a gruff voice behind a silly disguise?
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the point of the deception is the fact of the deception itself. This is not a story about Yakov stealing blessings; it’s a story about Yitzchak’s blindness to who his children have become.
The Midrash suggests that Yitzchak was blind ever since the Akeida, where his father bound him up and was prepared to kill him. It’s not a stretch to suggest that this traumatic experience blinded him to Esau’s shortcomings, unable to contemplate discarding his son in the way he so nearly was.
Esau had disgraced the family legacy, a feared killer who married idolators and indulged in their pagan practices, which another Midrash links to Yitzchak’s blindness. Esau was not the scion of his grandfather Avraham.
Esau didn’t become the person he did when he went out into the big wide world. Esau found his ignominious way while still living under his father’s roof – and Yitzchak was blind, completely oblivious! Sure, Esau was a smooth operator, and that’s on Esau; but Yitzchak bought the ruse. He would not, or perhaps could not, see him for who he was.
So if Yakov, so bookish and refined, could pass himself off as the macho hunter, then perhaps the macho hunter could also pass for bookish and refined!
Indeed – R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes that Yakov’s concern in the story is only ever the appearance of trickery, not trickery itself, because the story isn’t about stealing blessings – וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ / וְהָיִיתִי מְתַעְתֵּעַ!
There is no crime here, and this story should not give us pause about the greatness of some of our greatest. Rivka’s intention in setting Yakov up to deceive Yitzchak was simply to show how easily he could be deceived.
Deception for dishonest gain is wrong – at the beginning of the story, at the end, and throughout. One of the story’s conclusions is that blessings go where they’re meant to, and they’re not limited.