Rabbi Yechiel Brukner
Rosh Kollel, Munich
In our parsha, Parshat Vayeitzei, we read about Yaakov’s efforts to establish his family and plant the seeds of our nation.
As he deals with Lavan’s malevolent deceit and deception – “an Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather” (Devarim 26:5) – Yaakov Avinu proves to be a shrewd and worthy adversary. Yet, as Rav Yehuda Brandes asks in his work “Torat Imecha,” how can we reconcile this image of Yaakov as a determined fighter with the Yaakov whom Parshat Toldot (Breishit 25:27) describes as “anish tam (loosely, a wholesome or innocent man), a tent-dweller?”
In Modern Hebrew, the word tam has negative connotations. It usually refers to someone who is gullible and avoids critical thinking. Clearly, the Torah did not intend to portray Yaakov Avinu in this light. Similarly, the definition cited by the authoritative Evan Shushan dictionary – “overly simple, without cunning, naive” – does not apply, either.
Moreover, we must ignore the way many haggadot misrepresent the Tam (one of the Four Sons). Often, the illustrations show a foolish and inane looking man, and the accompanying text explains that the Tamis neither wise (like the Chacham) nor evil (like the Rasha). Some say that if we were to seek a chavruta (study partner) for the Chacham, we would match him up with theRasha, who shares the Chacham’s intellectual abilities. Thus, the Tam would be left with the SheEino Yodei Lish’ol (the “One Who Does Not Know How To Ask”). In other words, this depiction is also not appropriate for Yaakov Avinu.
But if we examine the first pasuk in Parshat Noach, we can finally begin to understand the expression ish tam:
“Noach was a righteous man, tamim (perfect) in his generations.” (Breishit 6:9)
Onkelos translates tamim as “shalim” – i.e. whole, complete, or perfect – and many other commentators follow his lead: complete in his heart (Ibn Ezra); complete in his understanding (Sforno); complete in his path (Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh); and “modest and humble” (Rashi – BT Chulin).
Meanwhile, in Parshat Toldot, most commentators use the word tam to stress the inherent differences between Yaakov and his twin brother, Esav. As Rashi (Breishit 25:27) states:
“‘Who understood hunting’ – [Esav knew how] to trap and to deceive his father with his mouth… ‘Tam’ –[Yaakov] was not an expert in all these [things]. Like his heart, so was his mouth. One who is not sharp at deceiving is called tam.”
Yet, our original question remains. How does an ish tam – a complete and wholesome man – confront a swindler like Lavan?
The Zohar (Breishit 139b) uses a pasuk from Tehilim to answer this question:
“With the pious, You deal piously… and with the crooked, You deal perversely.” (Tehilim 18:26-27)
True perfection, true integrity, and true purity involve knowing when to act with kindness and when to act with evasiveness. As an ish tam, Yaakov Avinu knew exactly when each mode of operation was appropriate, and now, we must ask ourselves – on both a personal and a public/national level – “when will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers?”