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how was Yaakov the ‘man of truth?’

Written by daniel fine

Parshas Vayeitzei; Man of Truth Parshas Vayeitzei opens with Yaakov’s dream of the ladder, and HaShem’s assurance of the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael. Yaakov then hops off to Lavan, and by the end of the sedra he has married Leah and Rachel and has a rather sizeable family of eleven boys (Binyamim is born in Vayishlach). The sedra closes with Yaakov returning to Eretz Yisrael upon HaShem’s command, and his eventual pact with Lavan. Chazal reveal the central attributes possessed by the Avos. The central trait of Avraham was chesed, the central trait of Yitzchak was gevurah, and the central trait of Yaakov was emes (truth).[1] These three traits match the three things which the world stands on as listed in Pikrei Avos;[2] Torah (which is Yaakov), Avodah (Yitzchak) and Gemilus Chassadim (Avraham).

Indeed, each of the Avos also correspond to the three things which the world endures on, as mentioned in the later Mishna;[3] din (which is gevurah; Yitzchak), emes (Yaakov) and shalom (Avraham). However, there seems to be a glaring problem with ascribing the trait of emes to Yaakov Avinu, which will force us to look deeper into this entire subject. If anything, it seems that, of all the Avos, Yaakov Avinu is the least likely to be dubbed the ‘man of truth,’ for several of his actions across his life seem to be (on the surface) anything but truthful. Yaakov first takes advantage of his brother Eisav’s hunger in persuading him to sell Yaakov the firstborn rights in exchange for some lentil soup.

Then Yaakov masquerades as Eisav to get Eisav’s bracha from his (blind) father Yitzchak; behind Eisav’s back too. Moreover, in our sedra Yaakov seems to use some form of witchcraft to make animals of his herd grow spots, knowing that his agreement with Lavan was that Yaakov would be allowed to keep the spotted members of the herd. How then, is Yaakov labelled the man of truth if it seemed that he was the one of the Avos who least epitomised such a character trait? There are two main approaches to this question, each with important/practical messages. The first approach[4] is based on a statement of the gemarra:[5] ‘any judge who judges a case according to its truth, is as if he became a partner with HaShem in the creation of the world.’ Why should giving a correct verdict render a judge a partner in Creation? For the Torah is the blueprint of the world; the world was created as an expression of the Torah. Thus, when a judge uses the rules according to the Torah to reach a verdict, he has brought the Torah into expression in this world. In other words, this judge has continued the job that HaShem began in Creation; that the world be an expression of the Torah. We see from this source that the most accurate definition of truth, therefore, is that which expresses the Torah in this world. The judge in question might not have reached the ‘true’ verdict in terms of what really happened in the case, but as long as he has used the Torah rules to reach his verdict, and the Torah prescribes such a verdict, he has reached ultimate truth; the expression of the Torah in this world. The idea is a deep one, as we shall see.

Truth must be objective; it cannot be subjective. For example, in Russia under one hundred years ago, a man could get beaten for entering the woman’s beach (or visa versa). Nowadays, there are hardly any single-sex beaches. So which is the correct, truthful version of morality; the standard of one hundred years ago or the standard of today? Or, for example, if the world (or any given society) decided that there was nothing wrong with killing, would that make it morally correct /truthful? I once took a Shabbaton with an irreligious group, and had a conversation with someone who believed that all morality was purely subjective. He believed that nobody can have a conversation about morality and its rules with anyone else, for everyone has their own version of morality which cannot be ‘impeded upon’ by anyone else. And he believed that since the legal system of any given country is underpinned by rules and concepts of morality, no legal system should really be able to force its moral beliefs on anyone – for everyone has their own version of morality. This is an extreme version of the belief of subjective morality, but it serves to show that there must be some form of overarching objective standard of morality and truth. That objective standard is called the Torah, and its truth and morality go beyond the change of time. Taking all of this into account, Yaakov is dubbed the man of truth, for he showed us that the real definition of truth is the Torah, and all the ‘controversial’ actions that he did were for the sake of expressing the Torah in this world.

This answer can be misconstrued/twisted, and the reader is urged to see the footnote for slightly less curtailed explanation and damage control.[6] The second answer is said in the name of Rav Hutner. He speaks of a fascinatingly insightful principle called ‘one action proves the other action’[6b] (‘the exception proves the rule,’ as we shall see). There are two types of honest/truthful person. There is the person who was brought up to only tell the truth, to the extent that he is incapable of dabbling in any form of untruth. And there is the person who is capable of telling a lie, but chooses to cling to truth. For the first person, telling the truth means little as far as we are concerned; he does not get major reward for telling the truth – he is simply incapable of lying. Telling the truth means nothing to someone who cannot do otherwise. The test of whether someone is truthful because he is incapable of lying or because he is choosing to tell truth is when it is necessary (and permitted) for this person to tell a lie. A person who cannot lie won’t be able to lie when necessary and permitted either, but a person who is only clinging to truth because that is what he knows is what HaShem wants, will be able to temporarily separate himself from truth if that is what HaShem wants from him at this moment. Thus, from the fact that Yaakov was able to dabble in things which were not one hundred percent truthful (for the necessary and correct reasons) shows that his general cleaving to truth was not merely because he was incapable of doing otherwise, but was a real meaningful decision to cling to the trait of truth. A similar idea is said about Esther in the Purim story in the name of Rav Tzadok.[7] With the Jews in danger due to Hamman’s decree, Mordechai urges Esther to go to the king, which would almost certainly involve Esther having relations with Achashveirosh. The words of Mordechai to Esther are ‘for if you are quiet at this moment then salvation will sprout for the Jews from another place, and you and your house will be lost/destroyed.’ Why would Esther and her household be lost/destroyed if the Jews are saved anyway? Rav Tzadok explains with this same principle of Rav Hutner that ‘one action proves the other action.’ Esther had the trait of modesty, as did her household. But there are two types of people with the trait of modesty; those who cannot act otherwise (and so for them there is no real decision to be modest; it is naturally robotic) and those who can act immodestly, but choose not to. Again, the test of which type of person one is, is when one needs to be immodest for whatever reason.

This is what Mordechai was telling Esther here; ‘if you do not act immodestly now (for reasons of necessity; saving lives), then you will have proved that the only reason you were ever modest was because you have been programmed to be like that and are incapable of acting any different. And for that you will receive little reward, and so your name (and that of your household) as someone who is genuinely modest, will be lost/destroyed.’ The most practical application of this second approach is in the realm of chesed and helping others. It is not meaningful to say ‘yes’ to someone if one cannot say ‘no.’ Sometimes one must say no to helping someone, for important reasons, and it is important to get the right balance. Have a great Shabbos!


[1] The traits/concepts of Torah and Tiferes are also ascribed to Yaakov [2] Avos 1:2, Maharal Derech Chaim there [3] Avos 1:18 [4] I heard this be’shem Rav Carlebach of Yeshivas Mir [5] Gemarra Shabbos 10a [6] We are not saying that there is no concept of truth as long as one is doing something for the sake of Torah. For example, one may not lie in order to further the study of Torah (as Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled regarding a yeshiva who wanted to lie about the number of students on their books in order to receive more state aid). Of course one is not allowed to lie, and the basic definition of truth means saying things which are true on a literal level. But the deeper version of truth is that which is ordained by the Torah. The Torah is truth and it dictates objective truth. Yaakov did actions which might have seemed dubious, but a) each action has been fine-combed by our authorities and explained as not constituting an outright lie (e.g. Eisav did want to sell to firstborn, and since he did so, Yaakov was actually entitled to the firstborn bracha – and his mother told him to dress up and pretend to be Eisav) and b) each was to further the ultimate truth; the expression of Torah. [6b] ma’asim mochichim zu al zu [7] I Heard this part on a Rabbi Reisman tape [8] Megillas Esther 4:14

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