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Jacob - The Man of Truth

Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Jacob is known as being the pillar of Emet, truth, as it states in the Book of Micah, "give truth to Jacob." (1) We see this in this week's Torah portion when Laban confronts Jacob and accuses him of stealing his idols. Jacob replies, outlining his outstanding integrity, including how he never eat from Laban's flock, and that if a sheep would be damaged, Yaakov would reduce the loss from his own wages. Given Jacob's devotion to 'truth', it is illuminating that he was tested in this very area throughout his life.

Indeed analysis of a number of the main incidents in Yaakov's life demonstrate that he was placed into a position where he was placed into situations that called for him to conduct himself in a fashion that was not totally straight and honest. The purpose of such tests would be the same as for the tests that his ancestors faced; to see if he would be able to overcome his overriding devotion to truth when commanded to do so, or when it was clear that this was God's will.

The first and most famous example of this kind of test was the deceit of Isaac in order to receive the coveted blessing that he planned to bestow on the evil Esau.(2) Rebecca overheard Isaac instructing Esau to bring food to him and then he would bless his son. Rebecca knew through prophecy that Esau was totally undeserving of receiving the blessings and that for him to do so would have tragic consequences. Accordingly, she instructed her pure son, Jacob, to dress up as Esau, deceive Isaac, and thereby receive the blessings. Jacob was shocked at this command and expresses his fear of being exposed as a liar. Nevertheless Rebecca commands him to comply with her, invoking his responsibility to listen to his mother.(3) In this way, Jacob was placed into a situation where he was convinced that it was God's will that he deceive his own father in a matter of grave significance. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, commenting on this challenge, describes it as Jacob's own 'Akeidah' (referring to the Binding of Isaac) showing that this test for Jacob was comparable in difficulty to that of Abraham.(4)

Many years later, Jacob returned to the Land of Israel, facing a hostile Esau. Jacob successfully appeases Esau to the extent that Esau offered to accompany Jacob on his travels. Jacob replied by saying that he would not be able to keep up but that he would catch up and rejoin Esau on Mount Seir. In truth Jacob had no intent of catching up with Esau, and therefore Jacob was technically lying.(5) However, again it is clear that in such circumstances, it was correct to deceive Esau. Any other approach would have been disastrous for Jacob's family.

A final example of where Jacob deemed it correct to act in a way that seemed to conflict with truth, is the incident with Shechem.(6) After Shechem had forcefully abducted Yaakov's  daughter, Deena, Shechem's father, Chamor, the King of the Chivites, offered that the two of them marry and that the two nations join together. Rav Kamenetsky notes that on close analysis it is clear that Jacob and all of the brothers were involved in a plan of deceit whereby the Hivites would perform circumcision and then the brothers would come and take Deena home. Rav Kamenetsky explains here that Jacob realized that it would be impossible to act in a straight way with people like Shechem and Chamor, rather it was necessary to trick them in order to save Deena.(7) However, without Jacob's knowledge, Simeon and Levi killed out all the men in the city in the process of freeing Deena.

We have seen how Jacob's most difficult tests challenged him in particular in the area of truth, and he was forced on a number of occasions to act in ways that superficially seemed to conflict with Emet. Yet, in reality all these situations were tests to verify that Yaakov would act against his nature when that was God's will. In addition to the general lesson that one must perfect the character traits that go against his nature, we learn a vital lesson in our approach to Emet from Jacob. A person may believe that Emet overrides all other considerations, to the point where some people believe in being 'brutally honest' even when they cause pain to the victims of their 'honesty'. The Gemara tells us of a number of situations where it is correct to speak untruthfully; for example, in order to preserve modesty, humility, or to help others. We even see this in the Torah where God slightly deviates from the truth for the sake of the Shalom Bayit (marital peace) of Abraham and Sarah.(8) These cases teach us that we must emulate Jacob in our application of the trait of Emet - that is to realize that there are times when it may be necessary to act in a fashion that seems to contradict honesty.

Needless to say, one must be very careful to not misuse this lesson and to justify falsehood in the wrong way. It is advisable to consult with a Torah scholar with regards to specific instances where such questions arise. Another pertinent point with regard to lying leshem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) is derived from Jacob in his attitude in the situations where he was forced to lie. When Jacob expresses his reservations about lying to Isaac, he says, "perhaps (ulai) my father will feel me and I shall be a mocker in his eyes".(9) The commentaries point out that there are two words used in Hebrew that mean 'perhaps' - 'pen' and 'ulai'. They note that 'pen' always indicates a negative consequence, whilst 'ulai' refers to a positive outcome. That being the case, Jacob should have used the word, 'pen' when expressing his fear of being found out by Isaac and not 'ulai'. The answer is that on a deep level Jacob hoped that he would be caught even though he knew the disastrous consequences of that happening. Yet his adherence to truth was so great that his reluctance to go through with the 'lie' caused him to hope he would be caught. We learn from here that when a person is in a situation where he must lie, that he should feel repulsion at having to do so; if he feels pleasure then there is a strong chance that his intentions are not pure. May we all merit to emulate the complete adherence to truth in all its forms of our father, Jacob.


1. Micha, 7:20.

2. See Bereishit, Ch.27 for the full story.

3. Divrei Yirmiyah, quoted in Artscroll Chumash, Stone Edition, p. 135.

4. Emet LeYaakov, Bereishit, 27:12.

5. See Rashi, Bereishit, 33:14 who explains how Jacob's words were ultimately truthful as they will be fulfilled when the Jewish people will judge the nation of Esau on Mount Seir.

6. See Bereishis, Ch. 34 for the full story.

7. Emes LeYaakov, Bereishis, 34:13.

8. Bereishis, 18:13, Rashi, quoting Bereishis Rabbah, 48:18.

9. Bereishis, 27:12.


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