How Important Is the Truth? Lessons from the Deceptions of Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs

When should we deceive?  When should we decide that there is a more important value than conveying the truth?  A study conducted by the University of Massachusetts a number of years ago that found that 60 percent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two or three lies during the conversation.  It seems that deceiving and lying is part of our everyday conversation, which can be very troubling because trust is a key ingredient to a thriving, functioning society.  Trust in society has been correlated with stronger democracies, richer economies, and better health.  The erosion of trust has a very damaging effect on society, a lesson that has been especially salient in this era of “fake news,” when objective truth seems to be under attack.  At a governmental level, lack of trust between parties has left us gridlocked.  When we don’t trust the other party with whom we are negotiating, how can our leaders work together to get things done?

Because we view trust as a value of paramount importance, on the surface, the stories of deception by our Founding Fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and his children, seem very problematic.  Avraham asked his wife to pretend she was his sister twice, Yitzchak asked his wife to do the same once, Yaakov tricked Yitzchak into receiving the blessings, Leah tricked Yaakov to marry her, Yaakov tricked Lavan to amass great wealth, Yaakov deceived Lavan in sneaking out of his house, Rachel tricked Lavan and stole his idols, Yaakov’s children tricked the people of Shechem into circumcising themselves and then Shimon and Levi killed them, Yaakov’s children tricked Yaakov into believing that Yosef was killed and Yosef deceived his brothers and his father in Egypt by not immediately disclosing his identity to them.  How do we approach all of these instances of deception?

We could argue that on the whole, there is not a lot of deception.  These were isolated incidents in the lives of the Avot and each instance can be justified.  Avraham had to deceive Pharaoh and Avimelech and Yitzchak had to deceive Avimelech because Avraham and Yitzchak thought Pharaoh and Avimelech, as the case may be, would kill them if they told the truth, Yaakov had to engage in deceit in order to get the blessings which were rightfully his because he purchased the birthright and he had to deceive Lavan because that was the only way that he could survive in the home of a trickster and Shimon and Levi had to trick the city of Shechem because that was the only way that they could avenge the rape of Dina, and so on and so forth.  However, it seems to me that Sefer Bereishit is full of this questionable behavior.  There are too many stories of deception for me to simply ignore and say that they are all unrelated.

Indeed, some commentators have found a pattern at least in some of the deceptive practices of our Avot. For example, in this week’s parsha, R. Eliezer Ashkenazi asks two questions:  When Lavan explains why he switched Rachel with Leah why doesn’t Lavan simply say that it is not done to marry the younger before the older.  Why does he say it is not done in our place?  Additionally, why does he refer to Leah and Rachel as the “bchira” and “tze’ira,” the firstborn and the younger, instead of the “gedola” and “ketana,” the bigger and the smaller, as the Torah called them?  He answers both questions by explaining that Lavan hinted to Yaakov that “in our place,” in our town, the firstborn takes precedence, unlike the place where Yaakov came from, where he stole the birthright from the firstborn.  Here, Lavan alludes to Yaakov’s deceit in last week’s parsha.  Additionally, the Midrash in Breishit Rabba states that when Yaakov criticized Leah for tricking him into thinking she was Rachel on their wedding night, she responded that he did the same thing essentially when he tricked Yitzchak into thinking he was Esav.  There are many textual parallels between both of these events, such as Yaakov not being able to distinguish between the voice of Rachel and Leah similar to Yitzchak not being able to distinguish between the voice of Yaakov and Esav.

Additionally, there are other textual parallels between Yaakov’s deception in last week’s parsha and what transpires in his life afterwards.  For example, the goatskins that served as Yaakov’s disguise are echoed in the goat blood in which Yosef’s coat is dipped to trick Yaakov.  Moreover, Yitzchak tells Esav “ba achicha b’mirma,” your brother came through deceit in order to receive the blessings, and years later, Yaakov’s children speak to the people of Shechem b’mirmah — with trickery.  Yaakov can’t criticize them about being dishonest because he himself engaged in dishonesty. Nechama Leibowitz writes: “The vicissitudes of Jacob’s life teach us, at every step, how he was repaid–measure for measure–for taking advantage of his father’s blindness.”

Do we then conclude as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant concluded, that lying is always wrong, that truth is always an end unto itself, a universal law that supersedes other values?  Do we conclude that since original sin came about via deception of the serpent who was arum, who engaged in mirmah, in deceiving Chava into eating the forbidden fruit, that deception is inherently wrong?

I believe that the Torah rejects this approach.  After all, God Himself engaged in deception.  When Sarah was told that she would have a baby, she laughed in her heart thinking that at the age of 100, Avraham was too old.  But when God recounted Sarah’s thoughts to Avraham, God told Avraham that Sarah said, how could she, and not Avraham, have a child when she is so old.  The Gemara explains that we learn from God’s response that you can lie for the sake of peace and God Himself modeled this behavior!  Additionally, when God told Moshe to instruct Pharaoh to free the Bnei Yisrael, He instructed Moshe to tell Pharaoh to let the Bnei Yisrael leave for just three days, when in reality the plan was for the Bnei Yisrael to leave Egypt never to return.  The commentators struggle to explain why God commanded Moshe to engage in this deception, but it was deception nonetheless.  If that’s the case, how are we to view the pattern of deception that plagues Yaakov ever since his act of trickery?  Was it a deceptive act that he was entitled to perform, or was it an act of fraud that led to negative consequences?

I believe that both can be true; that a distinction must be made between a punishment and a consequence. The stories after Yaakov’s act of deception demonstrate that there was a price to pay for what he did.  But perhaps his action was one of necessity, warranted because he needed the blessings for the sake of the Jewish people.  The stories of deception by our Founding Fathers may not teach us that deception is permitted without consequence, but they may teach us when we may deceive and how we should deceive when it is legitimate, and raise our awareness of the likelihood of the consequences of even a necessary deception.

Unfortunately, not every lie we tell is for such altruistic reasons. In fact, most of the time we lie for the wrong reasons, such as covering up a mistake or misdeed, or for economic or personal advantage.  In contrast, many of the stories of deception of our ancestors were for the sake of peace or to protect someone from harm.  They deceived in order to protect their family from Pharaoh, Avimelech or Lavan, or to protect the spiritual legacy of Avraham and Yitzchak.

At the same time, these stories still convey the danger that’s associated with even legitimate deception.  Just as Yaakov’s children may have learned to deceive from Yaakov, we must recognize that our children are watching us too.  And those who look up to us may not always be able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate deception.  As was the case of Yaakov, even acceptable deception can harm our reputation as well.

Hopefully, as we read through the difficult circumstances that our Founding Fathers encountered, we will struggle as they struggled with the difficult moral questions of whether and how to deceive.  Hopefully we will find that just because lying is an everyday occurrence, all lies are not created equal and all are not ok.  We must not confuse deception done in the name of peace with that which is done for our own monetary gain.  Hopefully, when we are forced to deceive for a legitimate purpose, we will struggle with the method of deception, the consequences of our deception and how to maintain our personality of holiness in this very challenging process.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.