Truth is one of the pillars of the world. (Avot 1:18). The Gemara stresses the importance of speaking the truth by relating that it was due to a lack of honest men that Jerusalem was destroyed (Shabbat 119). Furthermore someone who distorts the truth is considered to be like an idol worshipper (Sanhedrin 92). Our sages define Yaakov’s character as that of a man of truth. As we read in Micha 7:20 Titen Emet LeYaakov (Hashem gave truth to Yakov). Yet it would seem that throughout this Parsha, and later on in his life (when he dealt with Lavan), the torah seems to portray a way of deceit about Yakov.
If Yakov was so truthful, and always cherished the truth how is it possible that he “stole the Bechora – birthright from Eisav. How could he walk into his fathers room and state that he was Eisav? Furthermore, later on, we are told that Lavan made a business deal with Yaakov, that all the cattle that would be spotted would go to Yaakov and all the rest would be Lavans. Yet we find that Yaakov ends up taking a rod and placing near the sheep at mating time, and seems to manipulate the sheep that would be born, in order for him to profit.(37:40)
In order to understand Yaakov’s Midah of truth we shall delve briefly into the commandment not to lie, and to tell the truth. Rabenu Yona (Shaarei Teshuva 3:178-186.) lists nine different categories of lies. A careful analysis of these nine categories shows that all of the lies are told either for the purpose of cheating another person, or for no apparent reason. R’ Yona, however, does not list those who lie for a “good” purpose or for a “good” reason. It would seem that in such circumstances perhaps that lying might be permitted. Chazal tell us that Hashem Himself acted in a similar manner. When informed that she was to have a child, Sarah responded “…. my husband is old (Bereishit 18:12). Hashem, relayed to Avraham that Sarah had said “I (Sarah) have aged” (ibid. 13). Why did Hashem feel the need to alter the facts? Because “great is peace for even Hashem altered the facts for its sake” (Baba Metzia 87a). If relaying Sarah’s precise words would have somehow harmed even ever so slightly the great love that Avraham had for Sarah, this falls under the category of lying for the sake of peace. “Yaakov was an “Ish Tam”, a wholesome man, abiding in tents” (Bereishit 25:27). Rashi explains the term “Ish Tam”: “as is his heart, so is his mouth, one who is not sharp in deceiving is called ‘tam’”.
Yet we see that Yakov seemed to deceive his father. Let us take a closer look at the events.
When Yitzchak spoke to Eisav and informed him of his plans to bestow upon him the special blessing, this conversation occurred in a private room. The torah tells us that Rivka heard what Yitzchak said to Eisav, how did she hear if she was not there? Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel writes that Rivka learned about this conversation through Ru’ach Ha’kodesh, through prophecy. She beheld a prophetic vision informing her of Yitzchak’s plans to bless Eisav. When Rivka instructed Yaakov to disguise himself as Eisav and deceive his father, she acted not as a mother, but as a prophetess. She understood through prophecy that it was her duty to ensure that the blessing reaches Yaakov, and not Eisav.
Rivka received a prophecy that Yitzchak’s blessing must be bestowed upon Yaakov, and not Eisav. Yaakov thus had no choice but to heed his mother’s instructions, and, despite his truthful nature, disguise himself as Eisav.
While “lying”, Yaakov did his best to ensure that the words that came out his mouth were true. Yaakov’s response to his father’s asking “who are you my son” (Bereishit 27:18), was “it is I, Eisav your firstborn”). The Zohar tells us that while saying these words, Yaakov was thinking “I am who I am and Eisav is your firstborn” (see Rashi for a similar interpretation).
When the commentators explain Yaakov’s remark to mean, “Anochi; Eisav Bechorecha,” they seek to emphasize the extent of Yaakov’s commitment to Emet, to perfect truth. Even in a situation where he was required to speak falsely, where he received prophetic instruction to disguise as somebody else, he could not bring himself to speak an outright lie. He did whatever he could to minimize the “charade.” When Yitzchak asked Yaakov (thinking he was Eisav), “How did you find [game] so quickly, my son,” Yaakov replied that God assisted him – something that Eisav would never say. Yaakov made no attempt to hide his true nature, to imitate Eisav’s voice or manner of speech. So committed he was to speaking the truth, that even when he was required to disguise himself, he did so as minimally as possible.
Rav Dessler explains that when Yaakov said “It is I, Eisav your firstborn”, he meant precisely what he said. He was “Eisav”, but not the man going by the name of Eisav, rather the person who had the characteristics that Yitzchak thought present in Eisav, thereby rendering him deserving of the blessings. You my father Yitzchak think that “Eisav” is the righteous among your two sons, if so “It is I, Eisav your firstborn” – I am truly the righteous among your two sons, therefore I am the “Eisav” you are looking for. Had Yitzchak known the true nature of Eisav, he would certainly have desired to bless Yaakov and not Eisav.
Hashem created the world with Truth. The word Emet is Hashems seal or signatory. Truth therefore represents seeking purpose and peace for creation. That is what Hashem did when he appeared to Avraham and related what Sarah thought, and that is what Yakov by abiding to the prophecy of his mother and seeking the future peace of the world was doing here.
The permission we have to alter the facts for the sake of peace, however has its limitations, and even when permitted we must follow in the footsteps of Yaakov and lessen the lie as best we can. Our Sages teach that a habitual liar will not witness the presence of the Shechinah. [Sotah 42A].
May Hashem lead us always in the path of truth.