Parshat Vayishlach: To Be True

Truth: Loyalty, faithfulness; steadfast allegiance; fidelity, constancy; faith or loyalty as pledged in a solemn agreement or undertaking, after Middle English.[1]

This week’s parsha, Parshat Vayishlach, opens with Yaakov sending messengers to his brother Eisav: “ויצב אותם לאמר כה תאמרון לאדני עשו כה אמר עבדך יעקב עם לבן גרתי ואחר עד עתה” – “And he commanded them saying: so you shall say to my master, to Eisav. So says your servant Yaakov: I lived with Lavan and remained until now.”[2] Rashi comments on the word “גרתי”, quoting a Midrash which explains this word has the numerical value of 613 (“תריג”), representing the 613 mitzvot of the Torah which Yaakov kept even whilst living in Lavan’s house.[3]

The Torah’s first description of Yaakov is as an “איש תם”, which Rabbeinu Bachaya interprets to mean “איש אמת”.[4] Gesenius defines “אמת” as “firmness, stability, perpetuity; faithfulness, fidelity; truth opp. to falsehood”.[5] Yaakov is presented as a man of truth in contrast to his devious twin Eisav who, according to Rashi, deceives Yitzchak into thinking he’s a tzadik.[6] Further, the Gemarah associates the pasuk “לא רגל על לשונו” – “who has no slander upon his tongue” with Yaakov, who is held up as a paradigm of honesty and truth.[7] Yaakov’s words at the beginning of this parsha hint to the fact that, despite being tested every day, he was not influenced by Lavan’s evil ways. He remained true to himself and to his values; he remained true to a commitment he made to follow Hashem; he remained an “איש אמת”. But how was Yaakov able to do so?

When Yaakov leaves home to go to Lavan, Rashi mentions, based on the Gemarah, that he spent “י”ד שנים ששמש בבית עבר”.[8] Yaakov spent 63 years living in the house of Yitzchak, learning from him. Why was it necessary for him to spend another fourteen years studying in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever? Because Yaakov knew that daily life in Lavan’s house would be a test of how loyal he was to all he had learnt in the secure environment of the house of Yitzchak and Rivka. He needed to spend time at a yeshiva “established before the Flood when the world was riddled with depravity… and during the Dor Haflagahh when the Tower of Babel was built”.[9] He needed to learn how to resist the spiritual danger he knew he would face. And it was the Yeshiva of Ever “that prepared one to live in the broader society… that facilitated the transition from the world of study to the world outside”.[10] Yaakov was aware that he would be tested and he took the necessary precautions so he could succeed. The message Yaakov sends to Eisav act as a reminder to us that daily life is full of bad influences and of challenges. However, if we are aware of these challenges and we prepare – in whichever way is best for us – to face them, we can succeed.

The notion of being tested unexpectedly in daily life, and the idea that just being aware of these challenges can help us overcome them, is illustrated by the Gawain poet in his Medieval English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (For an outline of the plot, see <http://www.oxfordref erence.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095845144). This is a poem which “develops into a story about the virtue of trawþe (truthfulness, faithfulness)”.[11] Truth is valued as part of the chivalric code of knightly behaviour, and the word retains the Medieval sense of faithfulness and keeping one’s word. Gawain’s honesty is tested more than once in the poem, in the Beheading game and in the Exchange of Winnings game. Gawain proves himself truthful in the first game: this is highlighted by the narrative use of the guide, who offers Gawain the chance to break his word and not be discovered for being dishonest. This allows the poet to prompt the listener into thinking highly of Gawain, as a heroic knight prepared to face death in order to prove “true”.

Ironically however, the poet juxtaposes Gawain’s success in the Beheading game with his failure in the Exchange of Winnings game; at the point he refuses the guide’s offer to flee, he is wearing the very green silk girdle he should have given to his host. The Beheading game is revealed to be auxiliary; “the real adventure, the Exchange of Winnings… has already taken place, and all the Green Knight does with his terrifying axe is to pronounce his verdict on Gawain’s behaviour”.[12]

The only difference between the two tests Gawain faces is that he is aware he is very publically being tested in the first instance but he is unaware that the second game is a test at all; Gawain fails when he does not realise that he is being tested. The message of the tale, therefore, is one reflective of the human condition: “tests and adventures… may take place when you least expect them… in mundane circumstances”.[13]

Daily life is full of challenge; we are constantly being tested. And, as human beings, we are fallible like Gawain: “man stands midway between the angels and the animals… capable of moving in either direction”.[14] The Gawain poet does not satisfy the romantic genre’s convention of the knightly hero being successful and infallible; his “imperfections are all the more dramatically obvious because neither romance tradition nor the poem itself thus far have prepared us for them”.[15] Sometimes, when tests appear in the least expected of places, when they are hiding behind the guise of friendship and fun, when they do not feel like tests, we stumble. But, as the Tanya teaches us, “שהן שתי נפשות” – although we each, an animal soul pulling us towards physical temptation, we also have a G-dly soul propelling us towards spiritual elevation.[16] And we can rise; we can, like our forefather Yaakov, remain true.

 

[1] OED Online, s.v. ‘truth, n. and adv. (and int.)’, <www.oed.com/view/Entry/207026>, accessed 21.11.18.

[2] Genesis 32:5

[3] Rashi on Genesis 32:5; Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 32:5

[4] Genesis 25:27; Rabbeinu Bachaya on Genesis 25:27

[5] Gesenius Lexicon, s.v. אמת, <http://www.tyndalearchive.com/TABS/Gesenius>, accessed 21.11.18

[6] Rashi on Genesis 25:27

[7] T.B. Makkot 24a

[8] T.B. Megillah 17a; Rashi on Genesis 28:12

[9] Joseph Frager, ‘Yaakov’s study at the yeshiva of Shem and Eber’, <http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News .aspx/238457>, posted 24.1..17, accessed 22.11.18

[10] Rabbi Shlomo Sobel, ‘The Beit Midrash of Shem & Ever – 5766, <https://torahmitzion.org/learn/the-beit-midrash-of-shem-ever/>, posted 10.12.05, accessed 22.11.18

[11] Ad Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain Poet (London: Longman, 1996), p. 44

[12] Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain Poet, p. 67

[13] Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain Poet, p. 43

[14] Shedd, p. 4

[15] Gordon M. Shedd, ‘Knight in Tarnished Armour: The Meaning of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” ‘, The Modern Language Review, 62 (1967), 3-13 (p. 8).

[16] Tanya, 1:1:13

About the Author
After being born and raised in London and then spending a year in Israel, I am currently studying for a degree in English Literature. I love finding connections between Torah and the texts that I'm reading for my course, discovering how ideas overlap and diverge in both content and presentation.
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