Politics & Parsha: Toldot 5771

Posted on November 4, 2010 In Archives

Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.

Lying to Live

“The weakest of all weak things is a virtue that has not been tested in the fire.” – Mark Twain

The commentaries relate that each of the forefathers was ultimately tested in a way that violated their core. Otherwise, say the sages, what’s the test? To act as you’re naturally inclined? So Abraham, paradigm of chesed, kindness, is commanded to sacrifice his only son. Isaac, the archetype of private devotion is required to go on a mountaintop and publicly offer himself to G-d. And Jacob, who symbolized truth, was to lie and scheme to gain both birthright and blessing.

But even so, Jacob can’t quite get the trick down pat. He treats Isaac with respect, his choice of words is exacting in its truthfulness, and Isaac, though blind, is no fool. Holy, he is no naïf. Isaac gives voice to his suspicion: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are those of Esau.”

During the height of the Civil War, challenged by perhaps the nation’s first civil libertarian on “extra” constitutional measures he used to defend the Republic, President Lincoln famously replied to Albert Hodges: “Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution?” Sometimes you amputate a limb to save a life; you’d never take a life to save a limb. That is, Lincoln opined, “I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together.” (Henry Kissinger would say much the same about a century later: “While we should never give up our principles, we must also realize that we cannot maintain our principles unless we survive.”)

That is, sometimes you act out of character – violating your deepest principles. But in doing so, paradoxically, always, even then, you must be firmly rooted in those principles and beliefs.

Columnist and pundit Jonah Goldberg said something similar in discussing the religious accommodations and respect we provide terrorist suspects – even those held outside of the US “constitutional” system at Gitmo or other black sites.

Goldberg wrote (we recall it was said almost precisely this way) we act better than the terrorists – we treat them better than they would ever treat an American prisoner, precisely because we are better. “We are better than” they are, we are Americans and while we ought never tie a hand behind our backs in the fight to defend the nation, we must always defend the nation in a way that upholds our values. John McCain, a former POW said much the same.

And a few years back, at an OU forum on morality in wartime, our then Executive VP, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Rabbi Shaul Robinson, senior rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue (coincidence we are sure), and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a rosh yeshiva in Israel and an ethics advisor to the Israel Defense Forces, all echoed this.

That is, though the hands are the hands of Esau – using the tools of war that he’s ultimately blessed with by Isaac, the voice, the ethics and the principles must always be that of Jacob.

More than a worry, Isaac’s words are a lesson, and a charge – as much on the battlefield as they are on the home front, or even just at home, the office and the corner store.

Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.