Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Deception of Jacob: Atonement for Pain Caused

While in Schenectady this past Shabbat, at a shul entitled Beth Israel, I chanced upon a book entitled Lying for Truth written by Nosson Slifkin. The book addresses the seemingly problematic actions of Jacob regarding his taking the blessings from Esau. Slifkin desires to prove that in fact all of these actions were permissible; I prefer R' Jonathan Sacks' rendering, where he claims that Jacob did sin and thus had to give back these blessings. However, I did find the following passage in Slifkin's book to be particularly interesting:

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Payday

Considering that Yaakov was right to do as he did, it is somewhat perplexing to find that the deception led to severe consequences for the Jewish people:
    Rabbi Chanina said: "Anyone who says that Hashem overlooks matters will have his life 'overlooked.' Rather, He contains His anger and then collects His due. Yaakov caused Eisav to emit a single cry, as it says, 'When Eisav heard the words of his father [that Yaakov had taken the berachos], he cried out' (Bereishis 27:34), and where was he repaid for th is? In Shushan, as it says [when Mordechai heard about Haman's decree against the Jews], 'And he cried an exceedingly great and bitter cry.'"

    ~Bereishis Rabbah 67:4; Bava Kamma 50a
If Yaakov was right to do as he did, why did these consequences happen?

I heard from my rosh yeshivah, Rav Binyomin Moskovitz, shlita, that even if Yaakov had to do as he did, he still had to receive atonement for any pain caused in the process of reaching his goal. One must always feel some of the pain one causes others, even if there is no other way out. Everything has to be repaid.

One might ask, in that case, it does not seem very fair of Hashem to have arranged circumstances that way. This can be answered with a concept discussed by Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, zt"l (Shiurei Da'as 2:3). He states that one might be punished for taking a particular course of action, even if, under the circumstances, it is the best course of action to take. For had one been on a higher spiritual level, Hashem would have arranged things differently. So, too, with Y aakov; though one may wonder how a person who reached such a high level that his face is displayed on the Divine Chariot as the epitome of the "ultimate human" could have been on a higher level, in truth there is no end to the levels that a person can reach.

The Netziv explains Yaakov's punishment differently (Herchav Davar - in chumash HaEmek Davar- Bereishis 27:34). The necessity of receiving the berachos allowed Yaakov to commit an aveirah liShmah (a sin for the sake of Heaven) and to deceive Yitzchak. However any personal pleasure received from such an act removes the liShmah aspect, leaving it a plain sin, to the extent that pleasure is received. Yaakov caused great worry to Yitzchak, but he received no pleasure from it and so was not held accountable. (Footnote: The Zohar, however, states that he did cause pain to Yitzchak and was punished for it. Nevertheless, the Zohar states that Hashem supported Yaakov's actions.) However, he did receive a minute amount of pleasure from Eisav's pain, which had to be paid for.

~Lying for Truth by Nosson Slifkin, pages 42-44

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While doing some research today, I chanced upon a magnificent article (which happens to cite Lying for Truth) by Joel B. Wolowelsky entitled "Kibbud Av and Kibbud Avot: Moral Education and Patriarchal Critiques." I believe every student, teacher and parent should read it. It focuses upon how we can learn from the biblical narrative regarding our forefathers in order to be aware of how and how not to parent. To be aware of the mistakes made by our predecessors and to endeavor not to repeat them is a way of showing them honor.

6 comments:

Malka said...

Re: being punished for a "damned if you do, damned if you don't situation," see Aharon HaCohen and the Egel Hazahav.

Shlomo said...

According to this approach, Yaakov deserved the blessing he got, but caused unnecessary distress for Esav (and Yitzchak?) in the process of getting it. So Yaakov should be punished for the emotional, not the physical results of stealing the blessing.

In Shushan, the people were distressed by Haman's decree, but in the end they were not physically wiped out. Thus the punishment was emotional not physical - exactly what you would expect given Yaakov's sin.

Moreover, the punishment is carried out by Haman - one of Esav's descendants.

In short: great midrash.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Sacks disagrees with the Zohar?

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jacobjfriedman said...

Check out Joshua Levinson - Dialogical Reading in the Rabbinic Exegetical Narrative. There he posits that the pshat level of the Leah/Rachel switch is Yaakov's comeuppance for his deceit. Supported by a medrash in Koheles.

Steg said...

I heard from my rosh yeshivah, Rav Binyomin Moskovitz, shlita, that even if Yaakov had to do as he did, he still had to receive atonement for any pain caused in the process of reaching his goal. One must always feel some of the pain one causes others, even if there is no other way out. Everything has to be repaid.

That's great... unfortunately i've had a few very negative encounters with rabbis who believed that if something's "the right thing to do", it doesn't matter AT ALL if people get hurt in the process.