Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mistaken Identity

Perusing Shmuley's blog to check out his parsha insights led me to yet another post from him about Toldot. Not surprisingly, Shmuley takes the traditional line about Jacob being Mr. Fantastic and runs with it, going so far as to use him for a model for all people brave enough to stand up and confront evil in the world.
There was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron, to name but a few.  However, only Jacob was given a second name by God himself, which was the name “Israel.”
Um, why don't "Abraham" or "Sarah" count? Hello?
Jacob was the first to directly engage the forces of evil and to dwell in the midst of imperfect, immoral societies, in an effort to elevate them from their degraded way of life. 
Wow. Sorry to butt in, but I have to say, when I look at Toldot, Jacob's behavior doesn't exactly strike me as the "elevating" type.
Our initial insight into this characteristic that would define his entire life, is seen from his actions regarding the first born blessing that his father Isaac had intended for Esau, Jacob’s wicked older brother.  Here there was a great dilemma facing Jacob.  Would he be willing to secretly dress himself in his sibling’s best garments, place sheep’s wool on his arms and neck to appear hairy like his brother, and try to convince his blind father that he was Esau, all in order to receive this unique blessing?  Or would he sit back, let his corrupt brother be blessed with even more power, and rationalize to himself that it was really in God’s hands what would occur?
The spin here is really quite impressive. Let's imagine this a different way: "Would he be honest enough, upstanding enough, and frankly, bad-ass enough, to beat up a nun and steal her clothes in order to steal her paycheck from the Pope? Most people draw the line at nun-beating... but when evil's involved... all bets are off!"

Sorry, where were we? Oh right, Shmuley's ode to lying, thieving Jacob. Back to you, Shmoo.
Jacob had to make a potentially life threatening choice.  If things went wrong, he risked being struck by a potentially unstoppable curse from a powerfully spiritual prophet, namely his father Isaac, who was not aware of the true character of Esau.  Jacob also risked having this emotionally unstable, bloodthirsty brother walk in on him after having just finished a hunt, with sword and bow still in hand.  Jacob knew that even if he left from his father’s presence that day unharmed, he would likely be pursued with a lifelong hatred from his now enraged, humiliated brother.  Furthermore, Jacob’s plan of action would involve morally questionable activities, that when applied correctly could be justified, but when used for the wrong purposes, constituted the antithesis of God’s will.  He would have to deceive his father, to tell him untruths, and to steal a blessing meant for his own brother.  The easiest course would have been for Jacob to take the path of pacifism.  “I will sit back, I will not act, and I will not risk any action that could compromise my present status as a moral being.”  But Jacob chose the opposite.  He went down a path that is not clearly defined and that is morally ambiguous.  One that might invoke condemnation from his peers, and that required finely nuanced deliberations that not everyone would be privy to.  It was this moral courage that Jacob summoned that made him great.  
HUH. Not really sure what to say here. Are we sure we're reading the same book?

From here things get really fun as Shmuley compares Jacob to Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman. Because why not, really.

It's not that Shmuley has no leg to stand on, it's just that his approach really rubs me the wrong way. As much as I've been bashing Jacob, I definitely think, as with the other patriarchs, that there's great lessons to be learned in his character and story. But whereas my approach is to look for flaws in the Torah's characters, which reflect the flaws and doubts of real people not only living right now, but also back then, Shmuley, as many traditionalists tend to do, takes the complex and extremely human characters of the Torah and buffs and shines them until you can barely recognize them as human at all. Shmuley's gloss on Jacob comes from a place of profound certainty and rectitude, whereas I claim him as an example for the rest of us-- of how an incredibly imperfect man can grow.

The best example of where Shmuley and I part ways is when Shmuley starts talking about visiting South Africa:
When I was visiting South Africa with my wife a number of years back, I sat in an audience of 400 people listening to a talk given on Robbins Island, by a panel discussing the topic of apartheid and reconciliation.  One of the men who spoke was a former white police officer, who said that during apartheid, he had once been sent to a black township to quell a riot that had broken out.  He described how he took a completely innocent mother and her children, put them in a house in view of everyone, and burned all ten of them alive.  This ended the riot.  Afterward, the South African justice system at that time sentenced him to seventeen years in jail for those murders.  When apartheid ended, Nobel Prize winner Bishop Tutu organized a system that allowed some of those imprisoned to confess their crimes, express remorse, and be free to go.  This white police officer obviously took up this offer.  After being released from jail early, he now had decided to spend his time speaking and trying to encourage reconciliation between blacks and whites in South Africa.  At the end of his speech, the 400 people in the audience filled the room with thunderous applause.  Actually, it was 398 people applauding, for my wife and I sat there silent.  When the noise had died down, I stood up, pointed at the speaker, and declared before everyone there, “You sir are a murderer!”  I went on to blast this perversion of justice whereby a person could merely apologize, verbally, and thus be exculpated from spilling innocent blood, especially that of children.  At that time one of the speakers in attendance replied that I must be saying this because I was Jewish, and that the Jewish religion didn’t have a well defined concept of forgiveness.  I responded to him that he was very mistaken, and that the Jewish religion has at its center the concept of forgiveness and indeed three separate words for forgiveness, selicha, mechila, and kaparah.  But forgiveness must be earned, and no person has the right to absolve someone of an injustice on behalf of another person.  How would they feel if someone who murdered their family was released from prison because he said he was sorry?  This idea of unregulated pacifism and forgiveness, even to those who commit the most heinous of crimes, is not what the bible aims to teach us.
The irony here is striking. Could not the very same type of accusations be leveled at Jacob? Could not Esau be held up as a classic example of a wronged victim whom others have been more than willing to shove aside in the name of "forgiveness?" Yes, Esau eventually forgives Jacob in the Torah, but his story and voice are mostly silent, and rather than considering events from his point of view, the lion's share of classic Jewish tradition has spent its energies exhaustively cataloguing (or outright inventing) various reasons to "explain" why Jacob was really good and Esau really evil. Over the centuries, have the sages not perhaps been a little too eager to forgive Jacob on behalf of Esau, without necessarily caring about whether Esau was truly given full recompense by his brother? No one dares point the finger at Jacob, calling out with full righteous indignation, "You are a liar and a thief!"

Shmuley is convinced that Jacob is the ideal archetype for being a prophet for truth and righteousness:
our forefather Jacob taught us that only by challenging evil and standing up for what is good, can peace be brought to the world.  Abraham and Isaac worked diligently to disseminate the knowledge of God, and yet to a large degree they still lived apart from the uncivilized masses.  Once he arrived in Canaan, Abraham spent a brief time in Egypt and the territory of the Philistines.  Yet overall he kept his distance from the corrupting outside culture.  He would pray for Sodom and Gomorrah from afar, but would not dare live there.  Isaac, even more so, secluded himself from the outside impure world.  In fact he never left the borders of the future land of Israel his entire life.  It was only Jacob who was required to leave Canaan and live in a foreign land for an extended period of time.  First he dwelt in Aram Naharaim with his wicked uncle Laban for twenty years.  He then returned and chose to dwell in the fields of Shechem adjacent to the natives in the land.  And finally, he lived the last seventeen years of his life in Egypt.  Jacob’s consistent willingness to put everything on the line for the future welfare of the Jewish nation, and his very direct confrontation with evil, gave him the privilege of God’s chosen nation being named after him.  
The problem with this, for me, is that it misunderstands Jacob's fundamental character and utility-- he is not a prophet, he is a wanderer. He is not a missionary so confident in himself that he has nothing better to do but lecture others on how to live (does he ever do that in the Torah?); he is a physically and emotionally wounded man struggling with his doubts, demons and past. Jacob's primary lessons are not directed outward, like a prophet's, but rather inward, as a model for personal teshuvah and improvement.

For me, the value in Jacob's story lies not in the fact that he is so great (he's not), but that he comes from such a dark place and through continued struggle is able to better himself. Rather than mis-casting him as an example for great leadership, I think he is better seen as a model for honesty and open assessment of one's own faults and shortcomings.

Of course, that would require admitting that the Patriarchs are far from perfect-- and that the point of having these details be in the text is not for us to rationalize or justify them, but learn from them.

No comments: