Considering the Burden of the Deceivers and the Deceived
By Sandy Goldstein
I intended to base my d’var on a positive and noble characteristic, like Truth. After all, Truth seems to be a major issue in Parsha Tol’dot. The prophet declares: “The Lord God is truth” (Jeremiah 10:10) and the Psalmist declares: “Thy Torah is truth” (Psalms 119:142).
In The Mussar Torah Commentary, R. Lisa L. Goldstein discusses the middah of Emet or truth in association with parsha Tol’dot. and exhorts us to look within ourselves at our habits of truth telling and lying.
And this makes sense. As a people, we value and champion truth. Truth is essential to our pursuit of justice and is fundamental to the concept of knowledge, to knowing, which was the whole point of the Exodus. In a way, the entire book of B’reishit can be viewed as a quest for truth; while the book of Sh’mot is the book of the acquisition of truth, both in Egypt and later at Sinai in Revelation.
But I quickly realized that there was much more to say about deception. Parsha Tol’dot is famous for the scene of Jacob dressed in animal skins to receive a blessing meant for his brother Esav. Deception is present in Genesis from the first story of humans in Gan Eden to the last story of Joseph’s brothers after Jacob’s death. In a way, B’reishit could also be called the book of deceptions.
Using a more narrow focus, we see that deception is integral to stories about all four generations, the Tol’dot, of the first Jewish family.
Abram, Isaac, Joseph and Reuben and his brothers deceived out of fear. Tamar, Jacob and Rivkah deceived out of righteous motivations; Leah and perhaps even Lavan deceived for more complex reasons. Through Mussar we understand that deception is so pervasive because it ultimately stems from the Yetzer haRa–requiring self absorption, but even more so, driven by the yetzer itself, the force, the desire that makes life possible. The stories of deception in Torah are examples of the desire to stay alive, to avoid exposure and punishment, to ensure one’s place in the world and even to create life itself. Deception seems so essential to a world in which our actions are not whole–Shelaymut–and where the channels of open and honest communication seem unavailable, impossible or blocked.
Torah condemns many acts and many behaviors, but the Pshat (or plain meaning) of Torah does not seem to condemn or reject these particular deceptions, although it always points out their consequences, for good or ill. I think Torah is suggesting that we should not treat deception as foreign, as something to be extirpated, walled off, or in Jungian terms made part of the shadow–those aspects of ourselves that we choose to reject and repress. Therefore, if we are to extol our ancestors and identify with the positive qualities ascribed to them, were we not also the deceivers and the deceived, in the same way we were the Ger, the stranger? Are we not the ones who understand deception, are sensitized to deception and are deeply affected by deception?
As an alteration of identity and in its way an alteration of reality itself, this is a particularly pernicious type of deception. The deceiver asks the deceived to accept a small fact and to use that fact to restructure the way a much larger reality is perceived. So it is for animal skins and stew, for Tamar’s clothing, for the torn and bloody coat of many colors. As the sages say, “any falsehood that does not also have some truth in it will not in the end be sustained” (Sotah 35a), referring to the episode of the spies, where hundreds of thousands of people rejected the evidence of their own encounters with miracles and wonders, refused to “go up,” and instead entered forty years of wandering, exile, and death. Yes, we understand the power of deception.
Let me be clear, I am not speaking about pathologic, venal or Machiavellian deception, I am not arguing that we stop defending ourselves or cease in our political activism, and I am not sure how to apply this to our current world. But I ask, might Mussar and Torah want us to consider that we not close off and rigidify our nefesh to the deceivers and the deceived even in the midst of our understandable condemnation and righteous outrage? Can we even consider the burden of the deceived, if not the deceiver? These questions would never have occurred to me before I began my study in Foundations of Mussar through CCM.
Our pain is so great, it is hard to ask even now. It is hard enough to accept Mitzvot or to confront our own behavior when triggered. It is difficult enough to make T’shuvah. It is one thing to connect to the wonder of our world, and to accept responsibility for building a just society. But it is hard to even contemplate the difficulty of this Cheshbon haNefesh, because deception is such an assault on us, on reality, on the world itself.
After completing this d’var, I emotionally experienced for the very first time why the Revelation at Sinai was so important. These first families had intimate encounters with G-d as few had before or since, and yet they seem to be stumbling through life. They were sojourners in lands that were not theirs, without clear direction or perspective, without an understanding of the implications of Mashiach, without the tradition of interpretation, wisdom, and guidance from past generations that we can utilize to point the way ahead. Today, even with these gifts, we still need Mussar as an indispensable framework and process to help us implement Revelation.
Sandy Goldstein identifies as a human being who is also a son, father and husband, retired physician and former synagogue president. He has a backlog of material for Cheshbon haNefesh, but now thanks to his new studies at CCM, he also has an effective framework for processing it. He is grateful for the blessing of inspirational teachers and rabbis, “the elusive obvious” in close readings of Torah, and for living and the opportunity to grow. He is in his first semester of Foundations of Mussar.