December 2, 2011

About a year ago I was in line to rent a car.  It was late and the line for two different companies had been combined into one.  I patiently waited in line with a dozen other people for about 30 minutes.  As it was almost my turn, a man who had just gotten there went through the other “non-existent line” and cut everyone else in line without a care in the world.  When other customers including me tried to reason with this man, he simply yelled at us telling us how foolish we all were to not create the second line.  This man clearly cheated the system and us.  I took the high road and chose to not continue any argument.  In a way, I let him cheat and win.

Last week, Jacob famously “stole” the blessing from Esau.  The text favors Jacob and it appears Jacob is the one meant to continue the Jewish people.  However, Jacob, with his mother’s help, deceives his own father into giving him the blessing.  Jacob even goes so far as to put extra “hair” on his arms so that his blind father will think he is Esau.

While many rabbinic commentaries ultimately vilify Esau, they all agree that he was wronged in this case as he was completely loyal to his father.  In Genesis Rabbah 65:16 Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, “All my lifetime I attended upon my father, yet I did not do for him a one-hundredth part of the service which Esau did for his father.”

If we heard about someone deceiving someone else in our society today, would it be countenanced or celebrated?  Generally the answer is no because we try to keep to a moral code of sorts.  But how do we react in our society today if we feel that the person who has cheated, deserved to get there but was being given a raw deal before they cheated?  One example of this is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.  For those who saw the movie “The Social Network” last year, it is obvious that Zuckerberg cheated in some way to get to the top, but he also was initially given a raw deal.

Our Torah seems to make Jacob pay for his deception by having him be deceived by his father-in-law Laban, when Jacob marries Leah instead of Rachel.  The ongoing question is, was this punishment enough?  Does Jacob deserve to be punished more, or do we give him a pass because he was simply following the dictates of his mother?

We see Jacob wrestling with God, not once, but twice!  Perhaps Jacob’s sparring with God is also a result of his cheating the system to gain the birthright.  This is a reoccurring question for all of us.  Have you ever thought when you stubbed your toe or dropped your cell phone…is this some kind of retribution from God?  For me the answer is no, but for you it might be yes, depending on your theology.

The way I “read” our story, Jacob being tricked under the chuppah is just a speeding ticket, a bump in the road.  Jacob is the father of 13 children, and it is his 12 sons who move toEgyptto truly begin the Jewish people.  The Torah is telling us that this ebb and flow of deeds is part of life.

Our tradition tells us that cheating is a form of stealing.  The concept of Ginivat Da’at is understood to be the obtainment of undeserved good will.  That sounds like a mouthful of psychobabble until we see examples.  For instance, offering to pay at a restaurant when you know the other will not accept or inviting a friend to a simcha when you know they cannot afford to travel quickly come to mind, thus giving a false sense of generosity.  Cheating as this type of stealing is worse than any other kind of stealing, including robbing a bank, according to the Tosefta Bava Kamma 7:3.

While it may be true that others in society do things that are improper or immoral, there can be no justification based on what others are doing.  Maimonides in Hilchot Deot (the laws of personality development) 6:1 says that Judaism recognizes that peer pressure is a powerful force in life, but each person is given free choice and thus retains the ultimate responsibility for his or her choices, and each of us should always be in the company of the wise and learn from them.

We will all have moments in our lives when we can fudge or cheat to get ahead, just like the man who did so with me at the car rental counter.  I implore us all to take a step back and try to not take advantage of others or of situations that are morally wrong but could benefit us.  Our biblical heroes were not perfect, and this is but one example.  Let’s learn from Jacob’s actions and remember that we can always work to be better people.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham