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Task Is to Do Good, Even When No One's Looking

November 22, 2011 By:
Rabbi Joshua Runyan
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It's never easy being someone you're not. But is it evil?

Beginning with the forced sale of Esau's birthright to Jacob, progressing through Jacob's stealing of Esau's blessing, and ending with Esau's marriage to one of Ishmael's descendants, this week's Torah portion is a study in deception.

Even a cursory reading would indicate that half-truths may be justified in some instances -- the Torah casts in a positive light Jacob's trickery, for instance -- and a deeper analysis reveals that other, subtler lies relegate the liar to the category of wicked.

Such is the case with Esau, whom the Midrash compares to a pig who displays its split hooves for all to see as if to say, "Look, I'm kosher."

The Torah relates that when he was 40 years old, Esau married "Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath, daughter of Elon the Hittite," and states that the wives "were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah."

The great commentator Rashi explains the parents' consternation by noting that Esau, while being an adept hunter, also preyed on women. He was a ladies' man, so to speak, and at the age of 40 -- the same age as his father was when he married Rebekah -- decided to wear the trappings of normalcy by appearing to settle down.

His parents weren't fooled by the charade of taking two wives, of whom the commentaries point out were also idol worshippers.

We see the same thing play out at the end of the Torah portion. Esau sees that Isaac implores Jacob to never marry a Canaanite woman, so seemingly to follow his father's advice, Esau turns to Ishmael's daughter Mahalath. The Torah, however, points out that this newest bride was "in addition to the wives he had."

By refusing to divorce his idolatrous wives, his marrying another simply "added wickedness upon wickedness," writes Rashi.

The cynic would see the differing treatments of Jacob and Esau as typical: Jacob, as father of the 12 Tribes and the progenitor of the Israelites, had to be righteous. Therefore, everything he did, including dressing up like Esau and fooling Isaac into giving him the firstborn blessing, had to have been righteous. Esau, on the other hand, as the enemy of Jacob, had to have been evil.

Jacob's actions really were quintessentially good, while Esau's were, by definition, wicked.

Read the headlines and you'll see numerous stories of politicians, sports stars, religious leaders, and entertainers -- the so-called "heroes" of our generation -- falling from grace. And the public looks on in disgust at "how the mighty have fallen." But when a supposed pauper bequeaths millions of dollars to a hospital or a university, that person is branded a saint.

There's a difference between being righteous in appearance only and truly being righteous.

What the story of Jacob and Esau teaches is that in order to accomplish its mission of perfecting the world, the soul needs to be clothed in the coarse, unrefined and animalistic trappings of the human body and mind. Most mitzvahs require a person to be engaged with the world, to appear, like Jacob imitating Esau, as a hunter in order to extract the blessings from on high.

But one must always keep the body in check. It's easy to be like Esau, to inwardly drown in the material pleasures of the world, while outwardly using good deeds as fig leaves.

Ultimately, the task is to do good, even when no one's watching.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@chabad.org.


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