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True Might

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

The third and final of the patriarchs enters onto the scene in our current parsha. Yaakov is born together with his twin brother Eisav, and we learn about Yaakov's character right away: "Yaakov was tam, a dweller of tents (Gen. 25:27)."

For lack of a better alternative, the word tam is generally translated as meaning "simple". Unfortunately, though, translations often fall short of conveying the true meaning of the word. Rashi explains that tam is a description of an honest, straightforward person who is not sharp at deception. It's an emphasis on the straightforwardness and simple honesty of the person's character. Indeed, Yaakov's central character trait is emes, truth.

With this in mind one cannot help but to be almost thunderstruck by a comment of Rashi in next week's parsha. The Torah says: "Yaakov told Rachel that he is her father's brother and that he is the son of Rivkah (29:12)." On the phrase "her father's brother" Rashi cites our sage's interpretation that Yaakov said to Rachel, "If it is for deception that he (Lavan) is coming then I too am 'his brother' in deception; and if he is an upright man then I too am the son of Rivkah, his sister who is upright."

This concept is expressed by King David as follows: "With [a] pious [man] act piously and with [a] wholesome man act wholesomely. With [a] clean [man] act cleanly and with [a] crooked [man] act crookedly (II Shmuel, 22:26-27)." At times we must act with deception in order to protect ourselves (or others) from a deceitful person.

The difficulty that presents itself, though, is that Rashi told us that Yaakov was the type of person who is not adept in the art of cunning, so how could this concept apply to him?

In the introduction to Orchos Tzadikim, the author teaches us that character traits are like ingredients of a recipe. The secret of a gourmet chef is his expertise in knowing when to use various ingredients and in what proportion. The same is true of traits. Every situation that we go through in life has its unique recipe for success. At times the situation calls for calm and extreme patience, sometimes great boldness is called for, yet other situations call for softness, and certain situations require an external showing of anger. Depending on the given situation one has to decide which "ingredients" to use and how much of each (i.e. to what degree).

The greatness of Yaakov Avinu is that his essential personality was one of purity, wholesomeness, and simple honesty; yet, at the same time, his character didn't control him, rather he was in control of his character. His intellect was always behind the steering wheel, directing him precisely how to behave in every situation. When confronted with a situation that required a specific mode of conduct he would proceed accordingly, even if it meant overcoming his essential nature and character.

This is a key lesson for a successful life. A person who may have a naturally meek character, for example, cannot allow that to become an excuse for failing where strength is necessary. Likewise, a person with a naturally loud, outgoing character cannot allow that to become an excuse for possibly offending people who are of a more shy and reserved nature. This idea is a theme that extends through all of one's life, as King Solomon says in Proverbs, "Give to the wise and he will become [yet] wiser, make known to the righteous and he will add lesson[s] (Prov. 9:9)."

Of course, one is given particular characteristics and strengths in order to fulfill a certain role that is specifically suited for that nature, and one should use one's essential character in serving Hashem. Nevertheless, we are also given character flaws, and part of our work in life is to correct them. Similarly, at times we are faced with situations that require us to override our basic character - and that is what we need to do in those situations in order to properly serve Hashem.

We need to constantly work on ourselves to refine our character with good and pure traits to the extent that they become our very nature. At the same time, though, we need to constantly keep our intellect behind the steering wheel so that we are prepared to utilize any character trait, even one that in essence is prone to the side of evil (like anger), if necessary in a given situation. To accomplish this is to become a true warrior.

As it says in Proverbs 16:32: "One who is patient is better than a mighty warrior, and greater and more powerful is the person who rules over his spirit than one who can conquer cities."


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