Former Shaliach in New York
A superficial reading of Yaakov’s story leaves us with an erroneous impression of Yaakov Avinu. Throughout Sefer Breishit, Yaakov seems to be someone who somehow manages to always come out on top. Moreover, in order to achieve his goals, Yaakov seemingly does what he has to do and appears to have no problem employing methods which are less than straightforward, to say the least.
We first encounter this attitude when Yaakov ostensibly “takes advantage” of Esav’s hunger in order to obtain the bechorah (birthright). Later, Yaakov even resorts to deception in order to receive his father Yitzchak’s blessing in lieu of Esav. Finally, when Yaakov is in Haran, he himself is swindled by Lavan, but Yaakov does not sit around doing nothing, either. Using “highly irregular” means, Yaakov becomes quite wealthy at his father-in-law’s house.
Yet, despite our initial impression of Yaakov Avinu’s character, the navi Michah testifies to Yaakov’s innate honesty and truthfulness:
“Grant emet (truth) to Yaakov, kindness to Avraham…” (Michah 7:20)
Furthermore, we know that Yaakov is the quintessential exemplar of emet; he serves as a symbol of this midah (trait) for us, his sons. How is this possible?
The Kotzker Rebbe once said,
“Nothing is straighter than an inclined ladder.”
A perfectly upright ladder is useless. Thus, only when a ladder leans against a wall does it actually stand straight.
In this regard, midat ha’emet works in the same way. Emet does not mean walking upright and disconnected from reality. Rather, emet is defined by the reality of a person’s own existence. Yaakov’s emet does not resemble someone else’s emet. Midat ha’emet separates the wheat – i.e., the essence, the kernel of truth – specifically from the chaff – i.e., the false reality which surrounds a person.
Space considerations prevent us from examining all of Yaakov’s actions. However, we will note that in our parsha, Parshat VaYechi, we see that Yosef inherits his father’s midat ha’emet – as we have defined it.
Nechama Leibowitz contrasts Yaakov’s deathbed command to his sons with Yosef’s words to Paroh after Yaakov dies. Yaakov orders his sons to bury him in the cave where his fathers are buried. However, when Yosef approaches Paroh, he is not disconnected from reality. He is aware that the main thing is to obey his father and have Yaakov buried in Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, Yosef chooses his words carefully.
Yosef acts as if he is quoting his father and gives the impression that Yaakov had said:
“Behold, I am going to die; in my grave, which I have hewn for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me.” (Breishit 50:5)
But Yaakov had never actually dug his own grave; he simply wanted to be buried with his parents and grandparents. However, Yosef knows whom he is dealing with. In those days, kings would dig their own graves prior to their deaths, and therefore, Paroh would understand this explanation more than Yaakov’s desire to be removed from Egypt. In addition, Yosef emphasizes the oath he took and his inability to break his word to his late father.
Thus, Yosef learned the true meaning of emet from his father: Midat ha’emet is an adherence to the principles of truth, while accommodating them to a volatile, pragmatic, and dynamic world.