Religious Life

The Smell of Deceit

“The Smell of Deceit”
3 Kislev 5777 • Toldot • December 3, 2016
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Are you ready for a pop quiz?

What does “Minneapolis” mean? It’s not that we are the Mini Apple west of the Mississippi to New York’s Big Apple. Mini means water; polis means city. So, city of water.

What does “Minnesota” mean? Mini means water. Sota means sky-tinted or cloudy. So Minnesota is Sioux for “cloudy waters” which has indeed been the case this past week.

Lastly, what does “America” mean?

I can’t tell you what the word means but I can tell you from where the name derives. America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, a navigator, who traveled to the New World in 1499. Unlike Columbus, Amerigo wrote about his travel to the folks back home. So in 1507, when a German cartographer named Martin Waldseemüller drew a map of the world based on Vespucci’s published travelogues he used a feminine, Latinized form of Amerigo to name the new continents “America.” The name stuck and the rest is history.

And while I can’t really define it, I can tell you what the name is meant to evoke. In his farewell presidential address in September 1796, Washington said: “The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation.” More than any other name, Minneapolitan, or Minnesotan, to claim the name “American,” fills us with pride. It implies a sacred privilege and a collective responsibly that we willingly accept.

This morning, I want to talk about the meaning of names. In the Torah, names are key to understanding characters. A change in name signals a change in character. So with all due respect to Juliet who said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” in Jewish tradition, change a name and you change the smell. In our case this morning, one name has the smell of deceit. That name, of course, is Yaakov.

I want to explore Jacob’s name to gain insight into his character. And through our learning, we will also come to understand the character each of us is called upon us to develop.

Archeologists have discovered cuneiform tablets with the name Yaakov-El inscribed on them. Yaakov they say is from a Semitic verb meaning “to protect.” Thus, in its origin, the name Jacob is a plea for divine protection of the new born. But that is not how it’s used in the Torah. In the birth canal, Jacob grabbed at the heels of his brother Esau “v’yado ochezet baekev eisav v’yikra shemo Yaakov” (25:26). Apparently, he wanted to get ahead of his brother. And though he may have had ambition, he was neither as strong nor as strategic as Esau. So Jacob eats the dust of Esau’s feet and is born second. Fittingly, we are told that Yaakov means heel.

But the name he is born with is not the name by which he is known. Jump ahead in the story. Jacob can’t stand coming in second. He can’t stand feeling like a loser. He wants to be number one. So when he sees an opportunity, he jumps on it. It doesn’t matter that he has to steam role over his family. Looking out for himself, he makes a deal, drives a hard bargain, takes advantage of his starving brother and acquires the birthright.

Just one thing remains. He needs to secure his position; he needs to get his father’s blessing. Rebecca knew just what to do. Rebecca tells Jacob to deceive his blind father by pretending to be Esau. Now listen to Jacob’s reaction: “if dad touches my hairless arm, I shall appear to him as a trickster” (27:12). Did you follow what he said? He doesn’t try to talk Rebecca out of it. He is not worried that he would be lying. Rather, he is worried that it’ll look like he is lying. He’s worried about the perception that if he gets caught that it would tarnish his image.

Leave it to Esau to call it like it is. After Jacob tricks his father, Esau approaches Isaac who says: “Your brother came with deception and stole your blessing.” And Esau responds, “hakhi kara shemo Yaakov v’yaakveini zeh paamayim, Is he not rightly named Yaakov for he yaakveini me twice” (27:36). There are different explanations of the word “yaakvenini.” Some read it to mean Jacob “supplanted me” or “outwitted me.” But Ibn Ezra says plainly, “mirrma:” Jacob deceived me for, “akov haelev” (Jeremiah), he is one with “a devious heart.”

Here we see the real Jacob. You thought he was an ish tam, a pure man sitting in his tent. But really he was a crook. “L’kol ish yesh shem shenatano lo chataav. Each person has a name given to him by his sins,” said Israeli poet Zelda. So call him Crooked Jacob, Crooked Koby.

Now I know that there are many commentaries and conspiracy theories that try to white-wash the story. They come up with all kinds of Machiavellian explanations that justify why Jacob was meant to be the leader. “So what if he got there at any cost; the ends justify the means,” they say. Or said more generously by Biblical scholar, Nachum Sarna, “the successful application of shrewd opportunism was highly respected” (Understanding Genesis). But we don’t have to hide behind these false justifications. We don’t have to pander because he is a patriarch. We expect more of our forefathers, more of our leaders.

The Torah implicitly criticizes Jacob. For example, later, when Lavan switches Leah and Rachel Jacob is furious. He confronts Leah saying, “How could you do such a thing? It is not the practice here to switch the younger and the elder” which of course is exactly what he did to his brother (Gen 29:26). The midrash amplifies the irony putting words into Leah’s mouth saying essentially: “takes one trickster to know another” (Gen. Rab.).

Similarly and on the larger scale of national history, when Esau realizes that Jacob received his father’s blessing, he burst out with “a loud and bitter sobbing, tzaaka g’dola umara” (27:34). We hear in that cry an echo in the Book of Esther. When Mordechai learned of the decree against the Jews, he burst into “tzaaka g’dola umara, a loud and bitter sobbing.” This is not just the Bible’s way of saying, “what goes around comes around” but of scolding Jacob. In the words of modern Aviva Zornberg, “Morally, Jacob’s deception is confronted without equivocation or apologetics.”
So here is the question. If he really is Crooked Jacob, how can we admire him? How can we call him the father of our nation? To answer, once again we must return to his name. Not the name he was given but the name he earned for himself.

Ibn Ezra tells us “ha’akov hefekh hameishor, that crooked is the opposite of straight.” And that is exactly what Jacob does: he straightens himself out. He grows. He matures. And that is what we admire. He leaves the lies and deception behind. He reconciles with his past, with himself and with his brother. He even compensates Esau for the bekhora blessing that he took saying “kach na et birkati, please take this blessing” (33:11). This is the Jacob in whom we take pride. And his transformation is evident in his name.

Jacob is in the middle of a wrestling match with an angel when he says, “Bless me.” And the angel blesses him by giving him a new name. “No longer will you be known as Crooked Jacob but rather as Yisrael.” Yisrael means Yashar El, straight with God (32:28).

Here, I want to share the beautiful explanation of Levi Yitzhak of Beredechiv who writes about names, “There are people who cleave to God when they study Torah and pray and do mitzvot. But outside those times, they are not so connected to God. And then, there are people who cleave to God when they study Torah and pray and do mitzvot and (even or perhaps especially) when they talk to other people. The first people are called Yaakov. The second group of people are called Yisrael.

Now I won’t go into detail how he connects the name with the behavior. But the lesson is clear. Jacob was an ish tam, a pure man. He was yoshev ohalim he dwelled in tents of Torah study. And within the confines of his tent, you might say he was close to God. But in public, in his interaction with others, he was crooked and that made him distant from God. Jacob, however, straightened himself out. He stopped the lies. He stopped the stealing. He went on the straight and narrow and became Yisrael, Yashar El. Even as he spoke with other people, he remained bound to God for he saw in them God’s image and treated them accordingly. This is what it means to carry the name “Jew.” It is one who lives up to the highest ideal of ethical living. In the words of Psalm 15: “who deserves to dwell in God’s tent? One who lives with integrity and does what is right, who speaks the truth without deceit, who has no slander upon his tongue nor does evil to others, who never retracts a promise once made though it may bring harm, who accepts no bribe against the innocent.” This is what it means to be B’nai Yisrael, the children not of Jacob but of Yisrael.

The story is told of a married couple who had a newborn son. Unfortunately, they disagreed what to name him. The husband wanted to name him after his father. The wife wanted to name him after her father.

So they went to the rabbi for advice. “What was your father’s name,” he asked the husband. Ezekiel, the man said. “And what was your father’s name,” he asked the wife. “Ezekiel,” she said.

“So what’s the problem?” the Rabbi asked.

The wife explained, “My father was a businessman. But my husband’s father was a crook. So how can you ask me to name my son after a crook!”

The Rabbi thought and thought. “OK, I have a solution,” he said. “We will name your son Ezekiel and then wait. If he becomes a businessman, we can say he was named after the father of his mother; and if he becomes a crook, we can say he was named after the father of his father!”

Chaverim, you can have your name plastered all over town on buildings or on plaques. But our parasha is asking us to consider, which name is inscribed? Is it the name you were called at birth or the name you earned yourselves? The name we were given by our enemies or the name we were given by our love.

Our name, our keter shem tov, the rabbis teach, is the most precious thing we own. When our name includes Yisrael- Yashar El, it is a sign that we truly deserve our birthright for we will have brought honor to our families, our people, our nation and to God.