Parashat Toledot is a transitional one, in which the primary focus of the Chumash switches from the second to the third of the Avot, from Yitzchak Avinu to Ya’akov Avinu. For the next three Parashiyot, until the Chumash switches its primary focus to the interactions between Yosef and his brothers, Ya’akov Avinu represents the central figure in the text.
Chazal, as we know, have associated Ya’akov with the characteristic of truth – Titein Emet LeYa’akov (Michah 7:20) – just as they have associated his father with Gevurah, courage, and his grandfather with Chesed, kindness. Ab initio, this association seems strange. After all, the central incident of Parashat Toledot is one in which Ya’akov, much to his discomfort, deceives his own father. Even if Ya’akov was deeply uncomfortable with this, as he unequivocally expressed to his mother upon her suggesting this course of action (BeReishit 27:11), his willingness to engage in this kind of activity would seem to, in it of itself, disqualify him from association with the virtue of Emet. Moving beyond this incident alone, Ya’akov’s wresting of the Bechorah from Eisav by exploiting Eisav’s fatigue and hunger (25:29-34), as well as Ya’akov’s handling of the division of the sheep with Lavan (30:42) would hardly seem to be the actions of the archetype of truthfulness.
Perhaps, then, we might suggest that Ya’akov Avinu’s embodiment of the virtue of truth may be best understood as a lifelong process of growth. In Parashat Toledot, Ya’akov listens to Rivkah and flees from his brother Eisav (27:43-44), much as in Parashat VaYeitzei, Ya’akov Avinu flees from his father-in-law Lavan (31:17). In both of these instances, Ya’akov flees from his challenges rather than directly and honestly confronting his adversaries.
Parashat VaYishlach represents the critical turning point in Ya’akov’s progression. As Ya’akov prepares for his confrontation with Eisav, he is all alone. He must stand and struggle with the man-angel. In this confrontation, Ya’akov loses his capacity to run, as his leg is injured (32:22-31). However, from this encounter, Ya’akov gains something far more important, the confidence that he need not run from his problems or engage in any other form of machination, but that he can confront his adversaries honestly and directly. As we know, Ya’akov’s identity is transformed at this point to Yisrael, representing a transition between “VaYa’akveini Zeh Pa’amayim,” “He has deceived me twice” (27:36) to Yosher, honesty and integrity.
After Ya’akov’s encounter with the man-angel, his life is marked inexorably by an unwavering commitment to direct and honest dealing even with the most difficult situations. When Ya’akov Avinu meets Eisav, he asks Eisav “Kach Na Et Birchati Asher Hu’vat Lach Ki Chanani Elokim VeChi Yeish Li Chol,” “Now take my gift, which has been brought to you, for God has favored me, and I have everything” (33:11). Likewise, in the difficult trials resulting from Dinah’s abduction in Shechem, Ya’akov excoriates his sons for engaging in Mirmah, deceptive plotting (34:30). As we know, Ya’akov never truly forgives Shimon and Levi, as he continues to chastise their deception even on his deathbed – “BeSodam Al Tavo Nafshi BiKehalam Al Tachad Kevodi,” “Let my soul not enter their counsel; my honor, you shall not join their assembly” (49:6).
It seems that Ya’akov’s lifelong growth, in which he learns a unique sensitivity and capacity for expressing direct truthfulness, even in difficult situations, may also play a role in what might be otherwise perceived as one of Ya’akov’s great errors. As a Yeshivah, we began our study of Chumash this year with the beginning of Parashat VaYeishev, in which Ya’akov seems to blunder by sending Yosef to the brothers in Shechem (37:13-14), leading to the sale of Yosef and terrible suffering for Ya’akov. Perhaps, though, Ya’akov’s decision to send Yosef was motivated by a desire for Yosef to be able to work out the growing tension that he was experiencing with his brothers in an honest and direct manner. Tragically, things did not work out as Ya’akov might have hoped. But a man who spent his life developing the Middah of truthfulness may not have had it any other way.