Psalm 15 speaks of one who may dwell in the Tabernacle of the Lord, and on the holy mountain of the Lord – and, among other things, the psalm describes such a person as one who speaks truth in one’s heart and has no slander upon one’s tongue (psalm 15, 1-3). There is a Talmudic source (Makkot 24a) in which the verse “has no slander upon one’s tongue is interpreted as referring to Jacob. Shockingly, the proof text from the Bible that the Talmud cites to support that Jacob is a person of truth (who has no slander upon his tongue) is the verse (Genesis 27, 12) – “perhaps my father will feel me, and I will be in his eyes as a deceiver”. This verse is in the middle of the story of Jacob pretending to be his brother Esau as part of his mother’s plan to deceive his father, Isaac, in order to steal the blessing that was intended for Esau – and, the verse indicates that Jacob is aware that he is participating in a plan to deceive his father as well in stealing the blessing intended for Esau. How can this verse be a support that Jacob is a person of truth?
Names in the Hebrew Bible are often very significant in terms of their meaning – as in the story of the relations of Jacob and Esau. The name Jacob (יעקב) comes from a Hebrew root that means to deceive, as Esau says after Jacob takes the birthright and blessing from him (Genesis 27, 36) – “He is rightly named Jacob for he has deceived (ויעקבני) me these two times” (and, the word deceived here in the verse is of the same root as the name Jacob). Isaac also says to Esau that Jacob deceived him – “your brother came in deception and has taken away your blessing” (Genesis 27, 35). The story of Jacob is one of Jacob transforming himself in wrestling with the angel of God (Genesis 32, 28-31), which I understand in a metaphoric sense that he wrestled with his own moral conscience, constituting the Divine image of the human being – and, Jacob is then given the name Israel (Genesis 32, 29 and 35, 10). The name Israel (ישראל), which is also the Biblical name of the Jewish people and the name of the land of Canaan that the people Israel are to inherit as a homeland, if divided in the middle, means righteous of God (ישר אל). Jacob transforms himself from Jacob, one who deceives (not only his brother but his father as well), into Israel, one is who righteous before God.
The Torah reading of Vayetzei is seemingly about the relations of Jacob and Lavan – and, not of the relations between Jacob and Esau. However, this is not so. The story of the relations of Jacob and Lavan is part of the larger story of the relations between Jacob and Esau. At the end of the Torah reading of Toldot, Jacob flees from Esau who is bent on revenge after Jacob steals his blessing – and, Jacob flees to Mesopotamia to live with his uncle Lavan. The story of the relations of Jacob and Lavan is also one of deception. Jacob fall in love with Rachel, the youngest daughter of Lavan, and Lavan promises to give Jacob his daughter in marriage in exchange for an agreement from Jacob to then work seven years for him. Jacob agrees, but Lavan deceives him and gives Jacob his eldest daughter Leah to marry – unknown to Jacob. Jacob then agrees to work an additional seven years in order to marry Rachel.
The name Lavan (לבן) means white – and white is a symbol of purity and cleanliness. Lavan presents himself as pure in giving Jacob Leah to marry instead of Rachel as according to their agreement – he says “it is not done so in our place to give the younger before the elder”. Lavan presents himself as pure as if he is concerned with the customs of his community. However, it is clear that he is not so pure as he portrays himself – for, if he were truly honest, he would have told Jacob that this is the custom of the place before Jacob unknowingly slept with Leah. He would have allowed Jacob to decide if he wants to marry Leah knowing that he cannot marry Rachel until Leah marries. Lavan, though, tells Jacob about the custom of the place only after Jacob had already slept with Leah indicating that Lavan is intentionally deceiving Jacob – and, only afterwards Lavan speaks about the custom of his community, as if he is pure, in order to rationalize his deception of Jacob. The name Lavan in Hebrew, which means white symbolizing purity, if read backwards is naval (נבל), which means despicable – the exact opposite of purity and honesty. A naval is a despicable person from a moral point of view, and is one who is intentionally deceitful.
The story of the relations of Jacob and Lavan in the Torah reading of Vayetzei is one of deception. However, in my view, the story is serving from a literary point of view to distinguish Jacob from Lavan from a moral point of view. In literature, a foil is a literary technique – a foil is a character who contrasts with another character, usually the main character, to highlight particular qualities of the other character. In this case, in the context of the larger story of the relations of Jacob and Esau – Lavan is serving as a foil for Jacob. Lavan presents himself on the outside, publicly, as pure (as symbolized by his name), but inside Lavan is despicable (a naval, as indicated by reading his name backwards) who intentionally deceives Jacob.
If we return to the story of Jacob participating in the plan of his mother to deceive his father, Isaac, in order to steal the blessing that was intended for Esau, there is textual evidence that Jacob was not a willing participant. It is true that he did not protest (and should have protested) to his mother that he is unwilling to deceive his father and his brother – but, we can understand that he was in a very difficult position in the middle of an apparent disagreement between his mother and father. When his mother, Rebecca, tells him to bring her two goats so that she can prepare them as food for Jacob (in pretending to be Esau, his brother) to take to give to Isaac as if he is Esau who has returned from hunting, the Bible says of Jacob (Genesis 27, 14) – “And he went, and he took and he brought to his mother”. The Talmudic rabbis were sensitive to the repetition of “and” in the verse here giving a feeling of heaviness, and they interpreted the verse as teaching that Jacob went “forced (under pressure from his mother), bent and crying – indicating that Jacob was not a willing participant in the plan of his mother.
Moreover, regarding the verse that was cited by the Talmudic rabbis as a support that Jacob is a person of truth “perhaps my father will feel me, and I will be in his eyes as a deceiver” – here, too, there is an indication that Jacob was not a willing participant in the plan of his mother. The Hebrew word that is translated in the verse as perhaps (אולי) is not the only word that Jacob could have used – he could have used another Hebrew word (פן), which would be translated as lest. Jacob could have said “lest my father feel me…”. The commentary of the 19th century Haketav V’hakabbalah explains the difference – the term lest in Hebrew (פן) implies that the speaker does not want the matter to come to pass, while the term perhaps in Hebrew (אולי) implies that the speaker hopes that the matter will come to pass. The commentary Haketav V’hakabbalah points out that had Jacob wished that his father would not discover him pretending to be Esau he would have said to his mother “lest my father feel me…”. Jacob says “perhaps my father will feel me…” because in his heart he hopes that his father will discover him – indicating that he is not a willing participant in the plan of his mother.
So, Lavan then is a foil for Jacob. Lavan presents himself on the outside as pure (symbolized by his name), but inside Lavan is despicable (a naval, as indicated by reading his name backwards) who intentionally deceives Jacob. Jacob, by contrast, is portrayed in the Bible as one who has good intentions in his heart, though he commits acts of deception – and, he is not a naval (like Lavan) who is intentionally deceitful. The story of Jacob is one in which Jacob transforms himself from one who deceives (the meaning of his name Jacob) into Israel (the name he is given by God meaning righteous of God) – a righteous person in terms of his behavior. We can now understand the supporting verse that the Talmud cites indicating that Jacob is a person of truth (who has no slander upon his tongue) – “perhaps my father will feel me, and I will be in his eyes as a deceiver” (Genesis 27, 12). The verse indicates that Jacob is a person devoted to truth in his heart (as reflected in the word perhaps signifying that he does not want to deceive his father and brother) – and, the verse has been chosen by the Talmud to indicate that Jacob is a person of truth in his heart even at this stage in his life prior to his transforming himself into a righteous person in terms of his behavior.