top of page
  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Vayishlach: The Good, the Pure, and the Tainted

Updated: Dec 15, 2019

In these posts, over the last few weeks, we've been exploring the character of Jacob. He is first presented to us as a mild-mannered, baby-faced, pure-hearted, introvert (Genesis 25:27; 27:11) .

Two weeks ago, I suggested that Jacob had to deceive Isaac, pretending to be Esau, if only in order to demonstrate to his father that, in actual fact, he really had the sort of gall and energy that his father thought him to lack. And indeed, as soon as Isaac discovered that Jacob really was capable of getting his hands dirty in order to get the right result, Isaac became convinced that Jacob was, after all, a worthy heir.

And yet, last week, we saw that Jacob was still reluctant. He had been reluctant to deceive his father. And then, when faced with a ladder to the heavens, his ideological purity stopped him, even in his dreams, from taking the risk of climbing it. Jacob, by nature, doesn't want to act in this world. He is too pure.

We also discussed the virtue of Jacob's fear. I would rather a leader who recognised the stench that tends to attach to political intrigue, than a leader who revels in the power and the glory; so long as that recognition, and the fear it induces, doesn't prevent a person from acting.

In this week's reading, we meet Jacob at the height of his power, and at the summit of the moral growth that we've been witnessing over the previous readings. If, last week, he had been afraid of the angels that he saw climbing the ladder, this week he is literally in command of them. Having just seen an encampment of angels (Genesis 32:3), Jacob's first act in this week's reading is to send messengers to Esau (Genesis 32:4). Since the Hebrew word for angel and messenger, מלאך, is the same word, and since angels appeared in the previous verse, the strong suggestion of the text is that Jacob sends actual angels to be his messengers.

Jacob's choices have borne a terrible cost. When family politics made it necessary for him to deceive his father - even if the deception itself helped to uncover a deeper truth - Jacob got his hands dirty. Last week, Jacob was tricked. He married Leah thinking that he would be marring Rachel. His father-in-law, Laban, presents this deception as a simple case of Jacob getting his comeuppance. He said, “It is not our custom here, to place the younger before the older" (Genesis 29:26). In other words: You tricked your way into the place of your older bother. We're not like that here. Leah is the elder sister, so she had to be married first.

In the Midrash, Labans' point is made more explicit and placed in the mouth of Leah:

All that night, [Leah] made herself [seem] as [if she were] Rachel. When [Jacob] arose in the morning, and behold, it was Leah, he said to her: "You are a deceitful woman. Why did you deceive me?" She said to him, "And you!? Why did you deceive your father, when he asked you "are you Esau my son?", and you said to him that "I am Esau your first born"?"

All of the strife in Jacob's household can be traced back to his having been married to rival sisters, and having been married to Leah against his will. And yet, all of this was, in some sense, a consequence of his own trickery. Leah and Laban had learnt from Jacob.

And yet, the suggestion of this week's reading is that, on the whole, Jacob has grown into a man, capable of living in this world of moral ambiguity whilst maintaining his religious sensibilities. He fights with an angel, and prevails. Moreover, he will not leave the battle before the angel blesses him (Genesis 32:27).

This is a man who recognises that wrestling in the dark of the night, and the soil of the earth, is also to wrestle with divinity, and with angels, and that it can be an opportunity to grow and, indeed, to receive a blessing. Moreover, he receives a new name (Genesis 32:29): Israel, "because you have striven with beings divine and human, and you have prevailed."

As if to underline this understanding of Jacob, and his evolution, Rashi reads Jacob's message to Esau as containing a numerical code (Here, Rashi is following the Midrash Breshit Rabbatai). His message states that "I lived with Laban"; but the numerical value of "I lived" (in Hebrew "גרתי") is 613. This is the number traditionally given to count the commandments of he Bible. According to Rashi, Jacob is telling Esau that despite living with the evil Laban, and despite having to toil in business, and to live with his trickery, I nevertheless managed to observe the 613 commandments, without learning from Laban's evil ways.


Rashi therefore recognises that Jacob has come a long way from the tent-dwelling introvert. It's one thing to keep the Torah while staying in the tent of Isaac. Its another thing to retain one's religious compass whilst striving to survive in a world that's populated with charlatans and cheats.

Jacob's growth is best captured, I think, by the Midrashic response to Genesis 32:8. In that verse, having been told that Esau is approaching with a large military force, we're now told that Jacob was "greatly afraid and distressed." Rabbi Yehuda, the son of Ilai, wants to know why Jacob was afraid and distressed. What’s the difference here, between fear and distress? Here is his suggested answer:

[Jacob] was afraid that he would be killed, and distressed that he may have to kill. He said, ‘if he gets the better of me, he will kill me, and, if I get the better of him, I will kill him.’ And thus he was afraid that he would be killed and distressed that he may have to kill.

As I understand it, this is Jacob's triumph. He is no longer the young man who would, by nature, refuse to get his hands dirty in order to do the right thing. Jewish law mandates us to kill in self-defence. If Jacob had to kill Esau to save his own life (or the life of another), then he would have fulfilled a religious obligation. And he was willing to do so. But not every religious obligation is one that we should enjoy. Jacob will act, but the prospect of such an action distresses him nevertheless.

John-Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre was of the opinion that ethical dilemmas are a fact of life. There really are situations in which one cannot do the right thing. He presents the case of a pupil of his who sought his advice during the Second World War.

The pupil’s older brother had been killed in the German invasion of France. His mother was living alone with him. She was living a miserable life. Her husband was inclined to become a Nazi collaborator, and she felt deeply betrayed by this treason. And, what with the death of her oldest son, Sartre’s pupil was her one consolation in life. This pupil was faced with the choice of going to England to join the Free French Forces, or staying with his mother and helping her to live. Sartre paints the contours of the dilemma in the following way:

He fully realised that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into despair. He also realised that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose. For instance, to set out for England he would have to wait indefinitely in a Spanish camp on the way through Spain; or, on arriving in England or in Algiers he might be put into an office to fill up forms. Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous – and it might be frustrated on the way. At the same time, he was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity.

On Sartre’s view, the ethical life is messy. There wasn’t a perfect choice in this instance, because he would either betray his mother, or his nation. The Christian ethic of choosing the harder path, Sartre suggests, offered no obvious assistance here because it was far from clear which path would have been harder for the pupil in question. The Kantian ethic of treating people as ends, and never as means, offered no obvious help either. If he stayed, he’d be treating his mother as an end, but treating his compatriots as means, as he free-rides on their efforts and sacrifices. But joining the struggle risked neglecting his mother, as an end in herself.

Others claims that there can never be real ethical dilemmas. In the situation that Sartre presents there must be one best, and mandated choice – even if it isn’t immediately obvious to us what that choice should be. This radical view is most commonly associated with Immanuel Kant.

Immanuel Kant

If our ethical principles don’t generate a clear winner when we’re faced with a choice of how to act, then our ethical principles need fixing. An ethical theory should operate with all of the clarity and precision of a mathematical theory. If the theory seems to be generating contradictions or conflict, then the fault lies with us, and we have to fix the theory, or our mistake in applying the theory. The ethical life, when properly understood, is not messy at all; it’s pristine. And when it seems to be messy, it’s only because we’re not yet good enough at ethical theory.

One might be tempted to think that a Jewish ethic is going to come down on the side of Kant over Sartre. Jewish law presents us with a very complex algorithm to help us determine what to do when the law seems to be making conflicting demands of us. For instance: saving a life trumps all of the other laws of the Torah, save from three; a positive commandment trumps a negative commandment, when the two are in conflict; a positive public commandment trumps a positive private one; a Biblical command trumps a rabbinic one. And though ethics and law are not identical concepts, it seems fair to assume that we will never be acting unethically if we stick scrupulously to God’s law. So why would Jacob be distressed? There is no dilemma here.

But this pristine view of the ethical life seems somehow unrealistic. Life is messy, and even if we always do the very best that a person can do, it seems to us as if it isn’t always possible to live one’s life, and to make the tough decisions, without sometimes getting one’s hands a little dirty. Philippa Foot, to my mind, does an excellent job of forging a compromise position between the two extremes.

Philippa Foot

Fundamentally, Foot seems to agree with Kant, against Sartre, than in any given situation, a robust ethical theory – if only we understood it well enough – will tell you which path is indisputably the best path. The ethical life, in that sense, isn’t messy.

If, in a certain situation, ethical theory demands that we reveal a secret, and therefore betray somebody's trust, then we shouldn’t feel guilty, since we did nothing wrong. Perhaps the ethical law allowed us to make the promise when we made it, but because of extraordinary circumstances, the ethical law later demanded that we break the promise. If that’s the case, then we did nothing wrong. Guilt would be irrational.

Likewise, it would be irrational to feel guilty for missing an appointment with a friend, if you missed it because you had to save somebody’s life instead. You did nothing wrong. And yet, Foot recognises that breaking the promise, or missing the appointment, might still leave you feeling tainted. The taint is felt because you refrained from doing something good, albeit because you were obliged to do something better; or you were obliged to do something ugly so as to prevent yourself from doing something worse. The taint isn’t the taint of guilt, but it is a taint nevertheless.

And so, even if there can’t be ethical dilemmas, doing the right thing can be somehow ugly. She writes:

[T]he situation may be such that no one can emerge with clean hands whatever he does. Perhaps he must either betray his friend’s confidence or let an innocent man be condemned through his silence. Either action seems shabby and... the moral “disagreeableness” will not go away, even if there is a clear [ethical] solution and the agent is guided by it…

The disagreeableness, or the taint, or the dirty hands, shouldn’t be called guilt. There was a clear ethical solution, and you abided by it. You did nothing wrong. It is the confusion between moral disagreeableness, and guilt, that could lead a person wrongly to conclude, with Sartre, that real ethical dilemmas arise. They do not. In any situation there is always a right thing to do, and doing the right thing can never leave you guilty, even if it can leave you with something of a spiritual taint.

Jacob was always aware that doing the right thing in an imperfect world can leave you tainted. He had suffered the consequences of deceiving his father, even though his action was the only way to communicate a deeper truth to him. He had been too afraid of getting his hands dirty to climb a ladder to the heavens. But Jacob has grown up.

On the one hand you have the young Jacob, whose purity renders him almost unable to act. On the other hand, there are the Esaus of this world who see no moral complexity. They do what they think is right, and pay no heed to the stains that gather on their soul, and the fraying of their moral fiber. But then you have the Jacob of this week's parsha.

This is a Jacob who understands the damage that the doing the right thing can do. It distresses him. But it doesn't paralyse him. Only such a character, I think, is worthy of leadership. Only such a character has the sensitivity to ameliorate the negative consequences that stem from his right actions. Only such a character has the insight to recognise that there is no smooth terrain in the ethical landscape of this world. And only such a character can have the audacity to wrestle with an ethical dilemma, refusing to let it go, limping on and on, until it leaves us blessed.

111 views0 comments


bottom of page