Toldos – Defining a Lie

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In this week’s Torah portion of Toldos, Yaakov receives the blessings from Yitzchak in what seems to be a deceptive manner towards Esav and Yitzchak, and Rivka, his mother, even seems to be in on the plot. The Radak brings up an obvious and famous question on the way Yaakov acted. “There are those that ask in wonderment how Yaakov who was a tzadik (righteous) and G-D fearing, could speak a lie? But this is no wonder, for Yaakov knew he was more fitting to receive the blessings than his brother. And the spirit of prophecy that would rest on Yitzchak to bless him would more greatly go into effect by Hashem if [Yitzchak] would bless him and not his brother, because [Yaakov] was more desirable to Hashem than [Esav]. And switching words in circumstances like this is not shameful for a tzadik, for we see that Hashem said to the prophet Shmuel, “[And Samuel said, ‘How shall I go? For, if Saul hears, he will kill me.’] And the Lord said, ‘You shall take a heifer with you, and you shall say, ‘I have come to slaughter (a sacrifice) to the Lord’” (Shmuel Alef 16:2). So to Avraham and Yitzchak said about their wives ‘She is my sister’ and this was not considered for this reason speaking a lie because out of fear they said what they said. And so, by Yaakov when accepting the blessing of his father, even though he changed his words it is not consider speaking a lie. Furthermore, it was the command of his mother, and the Torah writes, ‘A man, his mother and his father he shall fear’ (Vayikra 19:3). Also, she was a prophetess, and when she said to Yaakov, ‘Upon me shall be the curse’ (27:13), Onkelos translates that to mean ‘On me it was said in prophecy that you will not be cursed, my son’” (Radak on Breishis 27:19). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It is true that Rivka had a prophecy that Yaakov would not have been cursed, but does that give a right to lie and trick your father? Isn’t there a well-known concept in Judaism that “the end does not justify the means?” So, even if the end looks bleak through natural means if Yaakov would not lie and trick his father into giving him the blessings,  does that mean he is allowed to commit a sin and lie to his father? Why wasn’t this called lying if it is plainly what he did? And even if you make up excuses that if you put the comma in a different place he really wasn’t lying, he really said “It is I, Esav is your firstborn;” he is still deceiving his father, and for someone on his level of righteousness and attentiveness of Hashem’s mitzvos he should not have even been perceived as lying?!

Furthermore, the excuse of doing it out of the mitzvah of listening to his mother is no excuse because the end of that very pasuk says “and you shall observe My Sabbaths. I am the Lord, your God” (Vayikra 19:3), why does the Torah juxtapose fearing one’s parents and observing Shabbos in the same pasuk and conclude “I am the Lord, your God: [where “your” is in the plural form, meaning to say,] [because] both you and your father are obligated to honor Me! Therefore, do not listen to him to negate My commands. — [B.M. 32a]. If that is the case then Yaakov had no obligation and was indeed forbidden to listen to his mother if she is causing him to sin; so how could Yaakov go through with receiving the blessings in this fashion?! 

The obvious answer is that what he said was not a lie, and therefore he was allowed to say what he said. The question is why not? It would seem, though, that we have to redefine what is a lie. Yaakov, Shmuel, Avraham, and Yitzchak all had to say and do things which looked deceptive and or false, but under the circumstance, since they plainly knew without a doubt the will of Hashem, in their calculations there was no way to accomplish His will without changing words and being deceptive,  barring an open miracle, which as a rule in this natural world we are told not to rely upon; indeed then what they said and did was not in fact a lie. Fulfilling the will of Hashem is not a lie, it is only a change of words. On the contrary those that try or want to stop that will from going into effect are carrying out the lie.

Therefore, by Shmuel, when he was told to anoint Dovid as King and he would have to pass by Shaul, Hashem, Himself told Shmuel to look like he was carrying a cow to be sacrificed, so that Shaul would not realize what was happening and kill him. This was proper hishtadlus (effort), that was supposed to be shown in this world of nature and a miracle was not supposed to be relied upon. So too Avraham and Yitzchak, through all natural means, feared they would have been killed as the laws of the area they entered dictated, if they would have said she is my wife. There is no mitzvah to kill yourself and Hashem wanted Avraham to go down to Egypt and Yitzchak to the Philistines during a famine, so according to all natural causes, barring any open miracles, which they had no right to rely upon, then the proper thing to do was to switch their words and deceive the people of that area. This is not called lying because they are doing the will of Hashem, who defines truth and is by definition completely truthful.

This is also true by Yaakov, since he knew that it was Hashem’s will for him to receive the blessings. But in this natural world, barring a miracle, there would be no way of him receiving them, then talking and acting in this fashion was the only natural means of fulfilling Hashem’s will and therefore it was not a lie. This means he did not sin and had a mitzvah to follow his mother’s command.  It has nothing to do with the axiom “the end do not justify the means” since nothing wrong was done.

This does not mean that one can lie whenever he thinks he is being stopped from doing Hashem’s will. Chaza”l clearly state that Hashem does not want people to be habitual liars. That is not His will. Being attuned to Hashem’s will precisely is not so easy. Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Shmuel obviously were because they heard and understood prophecy, and for rare circumstances they were allowed to change their words and perceive to be deceptive. However, the lesson learned from here is that the definition of a lie is something going against Hashem’s will, for Hashem is all truthful.