Toledot: Does the End Justify the Means?

The infamous Machiavellian phrase, “the end justifies the means,” denotes an approach that is responsible for much of the evil the world has known. It was evident, for instance, in the attitude of many Western intellectuals toward communism during the twentieth century. Many of those intellectuals, who considered themselves humanists, chose to support the Soviet Union even after they learned of the atrocities Joseph Stalin had committed against his own people. They chose to turn a blind eye to flagrant injustice in the belief that it was a necessary evil along humanity’s path to a better, more just future.

The question is: can it be any other way? All good in reality is tinctured with evil and all evil contains traces of good, and to defer all action until unadulterated, unequivocal conditions arise would mean to never act at all. Very rarely do we encounter opportunities to act in ways that do not exact a price from anyone around us. Unfortunately, the question is most acutely felt in complex situations, when human lives are at risk. Here in Israel, the most salient example is the discourse surrounding the need to defend ourselves even at the cost of harming innocents (Israeli or others). How do we decide what is permissible and what is not? And, once we do act, how are we to relate to the price exacted and the pain inflicted by our action?

To Deceive or Not to Deceive

The same moral conundrum emerges in Parashat Toledot. Rebecca learns that Isaac has resolved to bestow his blessings on their eldest, Esau. She encourages her younger son, Jacob, to disguise himself as his brother, fool his father, and take the blessings for himself. How should we relate to Rebecca’s problematic ruse? And does Jacob do the right thing in following her instructions? Might it have been preferable for him to forgo the blessings despite their immense importance to the Jewish people?

The Zohar (Vayeshev 185b) takes a unique approach to the problem, suggesting that much of Jacob’s suffering throughout his life is punishment for stealing Isaac’s blessings. Just as Jacob puts goatskins on his arms and neck to deceive his father, who feels him and mistakes him for his brother (Gen. 27:16, 22–23), so Jacob’s own sons pull the wool over his eyes by dipping Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood (37:31). Jacob’s punishment is measure-for-measure – the subterfuge he employs in appropriating the blessings is punished, seemingly proving that his actions were wrong. It is surprising, then, that the Zohar nevertheless insists Jacob did the right thing, and that even God Himself approved of his actions. Yet, he had to be punished, “even though the blessed Holy One approved those blessings” (Zohar, Toledot 144b).

It follows that, even in doing the right thing, one should bear responsibility for one’s deeds, and heed their consequences. We must immerse ourselves in the complexities of reality, remaining responsible for our actions and ever-aware of the price we pay for them. Cognizance of consequences may deter an individual from action, but a mature outlook on life will accept the price without shirking responsibility. We can at once recognize the fact that our very presence on this crowded planet, and our very nature as consumers of resources, harms the Earth, and understand that such is the nature of life and choose to live. It is only the cynic, Oscar Wilde once said, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Still, the question remains: why would the Torah see fit to play up to such an extent the punishment Jacob receives for his just actions? Perhaps the Torah is seeking to drive home the fact that we are expected to pay a price for our moral choices, even when they are virtuous. When we are confronted with the consequences of every action, there is reason to assume we will not go above and beyond what is strictly necessary. We will seek alternatives, and even when we conclude that an action is inescapable, we will invest thought and resources into reducing the damage as much as possible, and even redressing it. On a deeper level, an awareness of cost can make us more open to other opinions. Were various groups more cognizant of the price of their ideologies – and not only their benefit – the public sphere would be far less toxic.

Psychologically speaking, in our parasha, Jacob’s measure-for-measure punishment can be seen as a direct consequence of his behavior. Subterfuge within the familial context is a potential double-edged sword. It is a well-known principle that “the actions of the forefathers set an example for their children.” A younger generation that learns from its elders that it is acceptable to lie and cheat will end up lying and cheating. Another indication that deception is endemic to Jacob’s family is the fact that he acts on the instructions of his mother, whose brother Laban is not exactly a paragon of truth either. Indeed, while Rebecca uses her tendency to deceive for good, the trait remains in the family, and is passed on to the next generations, Laban and Rebecca’s grandchildren. The atmosphere of duplicity breeds a suspicion and ambiguity that are only amplified among Jacob’s sons.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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