Thursday, November 12, 2015

Is Yaacov Really a Symbol of Truth?

By Rabbi Assaf Harnoy,
Post-Graduate Beit Midrash for Torah and Leadership, Jerusalem

We can attribute many outstanding traits to our Patriarch Yaacov, the father of our nation. But we might wonder if the trait of truth, by which Micha described Yaacov in the verse, "Give truth to Yaacov" [7:20], is what we would really choose as the right symbol for him.

"Your Brother Came with Guile"

There is no person in our nation who does not wonder about the description of Yaacov's fraudulent appearance before his father and disguising himself as his firstborn brother Eisav. Yaacov does not ignore any means at his disposal in the effort to confuse and trick his father, who is old and blind, and to receive the very important blessing. Even if we are very careful in how we word the story of the events, remember that Yitzchak himself defines Yaacov's action as deception, when he says, "Your brother came with guile, and he took your blessing" [Bereishit 27:35]. This passage, like others, forces us to ask ourselves: Could it be a mistake to describe Yaacov with a label of truth?

Factual Truth and Divine Truth

I will tell you a story about Moshe and Aharon, the righteous brothers, the sons of Amram, who saw one Jew strike another one and kill him in cold blood right in front of their eyes. The brothers ran to court to bear witness about the terrible deed that they saw, to make sure that the man would be punished to the full extent of the law. But, before they could say anything at all, the judge opened the proceedings with a declaration – You two are brothers, and I cannot accept your testimony! I absolutely believe every word that you say, the judge continued, but I cannot listen to it, because from Torah law two brothers cannot be witnesses together (see Choshen Mishpat 33).

This story is a clear example of the tremendous gap that can exist between real events, from the point of view of "bare facts," and exalted Divine values, which at times are at odds with real facts. There is no doubt that the Jew in the above story is a murderer, but based on Divine truth, the man will return to his home a free man. In a world of Divine truth, even such great righteous men as Moshe and Aharon are not allowed to give testimony together, because they are related.

Absolute Truth

A story is told about Rabbi Natan, a disciple of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, who was a poor man, living in abject poverty. One day he was offered a job as a rabbi in a city far away from his mentor, Rabbi Nachman. The job would give him an opportunity to leave behind his poverty. Rabbi Natan hesitated, not wanting to leave his mentor. Finally, he went to Rabbi Nachman and asked, "Rabbi, should I take the faraway job?" Rabbi Nachman replied, "Thetruth is yes, that you should take the job." And then Rabbi Natan asked, "But what is the absolute truth ( 'emet la'amitah')? And his mentor replied, "The absolute truth is that you must stay here."

There are not many words in Hebrew that have a special meaning when they are repeated one after the other. Such phrases such as "faithful faith" or "heroic heroism" do not have any significance. However, with respect to the attribute of truth, the double phrase emet la'amitah does mean something – it is real, absolute truth.

The relationship between absolute truth and simple truth is similar to the relationship between Divine truth and "physical reality." It can happen that reality, which can be seen by the naked eye, is one thing, while Divine truth, that which the Holy One, Blessed be He, wants – is very different.

We can conclude that Yaacov was a man of truth in the most exalted and broadest sense possible. He knew to follow the truth, but also, in times of need, to abandon it and to revert to absolute truth. Therefore, when he was about to take the blessing from Yitzchak he knew that it was important for him to do everything in his power to get it, even if in terms of physical truth he was not Eisav. From the point of view of Divine truth, he was the only one who deserved to receive the blessings.

Shai Agnon said, "Nothing could be more beautiful than the truth." And it is imperative to stay as far away from untruth. However, we must remember and internalize what we learned from our Patriarch Yaacov – the truth is not always opposed by falsehood. There are times when the truth is opposed by absolute truth.

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