Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

Middos and Morals[1]

"Vaya'anu b'nei Yaakov es Sh'chem v'es Chamor aviv b'mirma... - And the children of Yaakov answered Sh'chem and Chamor his father with deception..." (VaYishlach 34:13). This passuk introduces the episode beginning with the proposal by all the sons of Yaakov Avinu to Sh'chem and his father, leading to the circumcision of all of the inhabitants of Sh'chem, the subsequent killing of all the males by Shimon and Leivi, and the rescue of Dina from her captors.

Ramban questions why Yaakov harshly rebuked Shimon and Levi both immediately after the event and again before his death if his silence during the proposal implied his consent to their plot. Furthermore, why did he single out Shimon and Levi if all the brothers who had made the proposal to Sh'chem seemed to be aware of what was to occur, Shimon and Levi merely acting as their agents? He answers that Yaakov only consented to this proposal since he thought that one of two possibilities would occur. The likely scenario would be that the townspeople would not consent to circumcision and that this would allow the return of Dina in a "diplomatically correct" manner without Sh'chem and Chamor "losing face". If they did consent, then their subsequent weakness could be utilized to seize Dina from them. This was also presumably the rest of the brothers' intention as well. When Shimon and Levi seized the opportunity to exact vengeance from the entire city, something Yaakov Avinu did not anticipate, he censured them for killing those not directly involved in the attack and kidnapping of Dina.

What emerges then is that Yaakov Avinu agreed to this mirma, or deception, at least partially. We find elsewhere that Yaakov Avinu engaged in deception or seeming trickery: once, by masquerading as Eisav in order to receive the b'rachos from his father Yitzchak Avinu (Toldos 27) and once in outmaneuvering Lavan to have the sheep produce the agreed-upon type by having them gaze at sticks appropriately carved placed at the water trough (VaYeitzei 30:28 ff.). These actions are difficult to understand coming from someone who if referred to by the Torah as "ish tam - a man of simplicity" (Toldos 25:27 see Rashi there) and whom the prophet Micha identifies with the quality of truth, "titein 'emes l'Yaakov" (7:20)!

These seemingly disparate behaviors and descriptions are not necessarily contradictory. Commenting on the phrase "ish tam" the Chozeh of Lublin (quoted in Sha'arei Aharon) questions how the Torah could describe Yaakov as ish tam when later, Rashi (29:12) quotes a comment from the Midrash that Yaakov told Rachel that if her father acts with guile toward him, he is "his brother in trickery"! His insightful answer helps us resolve the aforementioned contradictions. Yaakov is described with the appositive phrase "ish tam" not just with the adjective "tam". This means that he was the master of his simplicity and straightforwardness. (Compare "Hashem Ish milchama".) When appropriate, which was most of the time, he used straightforward honesty and integrity. But when dealing with crooked people, he utilized guile in order to achieve true justice. The blessings were rightfully his both because he had purchased the birthright and because Yitzchak would clearly not want the blessings to be in the hands of Eisav had he known his true wickedness. In addition, he had been told by his mother prophetically that the blessings must go to him (see Targum Onkelos to 27:13). He outsmarted Lavan who wished to leave him penniless and switched the agreement one hundred times (!) by using legal - albeit under ordinary circumstances not proper - means to secure his just salary which would have not been given to him otherwise. He consented to deception to rescue his daughter Dina from the clutches of Sh'chem who had attacked her and kept her captive in his home. Yaakov was a master of middos, culling traits from his multifaceted arsenal of qualities to be utilized at the appropriate time. King David praises Hakadosh Baruch Hu: "'im gibor tamim titamam... v'im ikeish titapal - with the innocent one you act straightforwardly, with the crooked, you act crookedly" (Sh'muel II 22:26-27). We are commanded to walk in the ways of Hashem in this regard as well.

Chazal note the absurdity of always applying kindness. "Anyone who is merciful on the cruel, will ultimately be cruel on the merciful" (Tanchuma, M'tsora 1). Misplaced mercy will not lead to a better world, but to a more dangerous one. They note the requirement to lie or at least bend the truth to avoid a quarrel, quoting Hashem Himself as a source for this (see Rashi on VaYeira 18:13). They list situations where even a Torah scholar, who should be punctilious never to even "bend the truth", should do exactly that (Bava Metsia 23b). At first these statements seem against what appears to be morally correct. Is not honesty always the best policy? Is not kindness always appropriate? Chazal teach us that the consummate servant of G-d cannot just operate based on the ostensibly "good" qualities even though they certainly should be our norm. Occasionally, circumstances warrant channeling the "bad' qualities for a higher purpose. Chazal even justify sin when done l'sheim shamayim such as Ya'el being with Sisera and Esther being with Achashverosh in order to save the Jewish people (see Horayos 10b). This of course must be done with the utmost of caution balancing the sin with the benefit and only upon appropriate decision-making by Torah personalities.[2]

The Vilna Gaon, commenting on the verse in Mishlei (8:12) "I am wisdom, I dwelled with craftiness", contrasts Eisav and Lavan with Yaakov Avinu. Eisav and Lavan developed craftiness and deception as part of their nature. Yaakov Avinu utilized his Torah wisdom to know when to use deception appropriately. As a result, he outsmarted both of them.[3] This is why Targum Onkelos translates both instances of the word "mirma" - concerning Yaakov's taking the b'rachos (27:35) and concerning his sons' proposal to Sh'chem and Chamor - as "with wisdom" rather than the literal "with deception" indicating that the source of its utilization emerged from the wisdom of the Torah.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik noted in a recorded oral lecture I had the privilege of listening to that even good values when taken to extremes become corrupted.[4] The "moralist" will utilize his warped sense of extreme "morality" to arrive at unjust and immoral conclusions. To illustrate, in the last war that was thrust upon the State of Israel, Europeans, the United States and many individuals accused the Israeli army of unjust cruelty in battle. Hamas' use of human shields and bunkers built under hospitals was totally ignored while Israel was accused of being the aggressor. Labeling aggression as evil even when enacted in response to thousands of missiles being fired at a country's citizenry is not something that one would believe could be uttered by intelligent people if not for the fact that we all witnessed precisely this occur. Many viewed the Israeli government's decision not to bomb more of the missile sites early on in the war for fear of causing civilian casualties as misplaced mercy. A recent decision by the Israeli Supreme Court to prevent demolition of a cruel terrorist's home came under similar criticism. I do not wish to take sides on these issues in this article, but I do wish to raise the point that mercy can be unjustly misplaced when dealing with the enemy.

Only through study of Torah and consultation with the masters of Torah can we arrive at an appropriate balance of which qualities to use when. Yaakov Avinu's complex mixture of behaviors serves as an example of the centrality and importance of not being monolithic in our application of middos to different life situations. May Hashem open our eyes to utilize character traits properly.


[1] Different approaches to the main themes in this article are also presented by Mori v'Rabi Rav Willig shlita in Confrontations and Tribulations and by Mori v'Rabi Rav Rosensweig shlita in Parshat Vayishlach - The Principled Pursuit of Principle. V'shivim panim l'Torah.

[2] Rav Chaim Volozhiner is quoting as saying that "aveira lishma" only applied before Mattan Torah when the mitzvos were kept voluntarily. I believe I heard that his statement should be interpreted as greatly limiting its application post-Mattan Torah but not eliminating it altogether. The actions of Esther and Ya'el were both post-Mattan Torah.

[3] See also footnote 115 of the Mossad HaRav Kook edition by Rav Katzenelenbogen.

[4] He explained, fascinatingly, that mankind does this in their search for "Infinity". When their questing souls do not find "Infinity" they substitute "finitehood" for "Infinity". This includes misplaced "morality".

Copyright © 2014 by The TorahWeb Foundation. All rights reserved.