The ancient Romans were known for their wild and weird rituals, but one of them, recorded in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11b), is of special interest to us. It is said that once every 70 years, Romans would have a healthy man, wearing the legendary garments of Adam, ride on the back of a limping man, who wore the mask of a Jew as he walked through the streets of Rome. At the head of the parade an announcer would repeatedly say: “Our master’s brother is a forger. Whomever sees this parade let him enjoy, because there will not be another for 70 more years. Forgery has not benefited the forger nor deceit benefited the deceiver!”
That strange ceremony evokes the biblical story of Jacob stealing the blessings from Esau, with the healthy man representing Esau and the limping one standing for Jacob. But lest we think that only the ancient Romans, or later the church, had a bone to pick with Jacob, let us take a look in Bereshit Rabbah (67:4), where the rabbis say that Esau’s bitter cry after learning he has been cheated out of his blessing kept on reverberating throughout the ages, waiting for a moment of retribution. The moment came almost a thousand years later when Mordechai found out about Haman’s plan to annihilate the Jews and responded with “a great, bitter outcry” (Esther 4:1).
The question now, to take a traditional talmudic course is, if the Romans and the rabbis both agree that Jacob’s actions were questionable, why does the prophet Micah (7:20) state: “You shall grant truth to Jacob”? The question is exacerbated by the fact that Jewish mysticism identifies Jacob with the character trait of truth.
To answer this question we must look carefully into the details of how Jacob proceeded to take the blessing.
Jacob was reluctant when Rebecca suggested that he impersonate Esau, and only does so after being prodded by his mother. When Jacob speaks to Isaac, his father right away asks, “Is it you my son, Esau?” Rashi points out the different conversational styles of the two brothers, but one would assume that had Jacob wanted to pull it off he would get into the character, knowing his brother as well as he did. It seems Jacob had hoped his behavior and speech manners would give him away, and that his father will find out the truth, rebuke him or even drive him away.
Truth was important to Jacob, but he wasn’t sure where, how and to whom to apply it. He wanted to satisfy everyone — to do what his mother asked of him, but at the same time he did not want to deceive his father. In short, he faced the dilemma of being told “be true to yourself” without knowing which part of himself to be true to — the Jacob, Isaac or Rebecca elements within him.
As his life’s bitter course later taught him, his decision was not the right one. He was haunted by the consequences and cheated again and again by his father-in-law, his wives and, most painfully, by his children; a deception that reflected his own act by using the same elements: a slaughtered goat and a garment.
Jacob realized that when facing a fork in the road such as he faced when debating whether to follow his mother’s advice to steal the blessing or rely on his father’s judgment and await his choice, one should trust the voice of truth in him and not try to please everyone. Had Jacob followed his hunch and refused to take the blessing unlawfully, the course of his life and our lives would have been different.
From Jacob’s story we learn that not only is no one perfect, but that sometimes the imperfection itself might be the indicator of greatness. Someone who acts very cold and distant, not interested in forming bonds of love and friendship, might be doing so because of a hidden sensitivity and frailty. He is afraid to create love and then face the risk of losing it or being harmed by it. Once that person realizes the source of his behavior and taps into his inner resources he can let down his defenses, drop the outer shell and become the best friend, spouse or parent ever.
If we return now to Micah’s statement — “You shall grant truth to Jacob” — and the mystical idea of Jacob as truth, we realize that it was Jacob’s innate proclivity to seek the truth that caused him to stumble. But once he learns to harness that power and use it correctly, Jacob becomes the epitome of truth. l