Parashat Toldot: Deception

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

The Talmud tells us that the seal of God is stamped with truth. One of the Ten Commandments is to not bear false witness, and there are prohibitions against being dishonest in business and generally misleading others. We tend to think that lying is bad and we advocate for honesty. Yet, if we are to examine the stories of our forefathers, particularly that of Jacob, lying seems to be a big part of the narrative.

In what is one of the most dramatic stories in the Torah, we will read about Jacob’s epic deception. As you know, he deceived his father, Isaac, disguising himself as his older brother Esau, and then stealing the blessing from Esau, despite the fact that Jacob was a spiritual giant and the paradigm of truthfulness. Indeed, the attribute of truth is most associated with Jacob, as stated, ” Give truth to Jacob.” Jacob is described in the Torah as an ish tam, a phrase which carries dual meanings of “lacking guile” and “uncompromising honesty.” 

At first glance, neither description seems appropriate. How can Jacob be described in this way when throughout his life, whenever he came in contact with crooked individuals, he consistently found a clever, non-straightforward way to defend himself from being swindled? As a result, he does not always come across as truthful, for at times he had to employ shrewdness to protect himself. The Torah bestows to those who study it unremittingly the insight to safeguard themselves from corrupt individuals who may try to take advantage of them. Their ability to defend themselves in this way does not contradict the Torah’s fundamental and uncompromising dedication to the absolute truth.

It seems that the pressing need for Jacob to receive the birthright and Isaac’s blessings overrode the general prohibition against deception. The question remains as to why did God arrange events so that Jacob would need to acquire these things through deceit, which would seem to this lessen the value of these blessings? As it turns out, there are instances where deception is permissible under extenuating circumstances.

With regard to the form of falsehood that is prohibited by the Torah, there is one specific circumstance in which one may be permitted to lie; when another person is trying to trick or lie to you then you may be allowed to deceive him. This leniency is derived from today’s parashah. The commentaries ask how it was permissible for Jacob to blatantly mislead Isaac in this way. They explain that Esau, himself, had spent his whole life deceiving Isaac, and that it was permissible to resort to falsehood in order to undermine the deceit that had been perpetrated. Lying to overcome a liar is not considered a transgression of the Torah’s command against falsehood.

But dishonesty and deception are serious crimes in Jewish law. The Torah explicitly demands that one should” distance himself from the false matter.” There are, however, situations in which Jewish law permits or even demands that one engage in deception.

A lie told for the purpose of keeping the peace is not included in the prohibition against falsehood. Since the ultimate goal of the lie is a positive one, it is permitted.

Other examples of permitted white lies include:

1. In order to practice humility; in order not to appear arrogant.

2. In order to maintain modesty.

3. In order to protect someone else from harm or inconvenience. 

4. In order to protect someone from embarrassment. An example of this is that one may say a bride is beautiful and gracious even if she isn’t particularly beautiful or gracious. 

5. In order to recoup losses that are owed from fraudulent business deals. Jacob employed this method to acquire his lawfully earned gains from his father-in-law, Laban, who kept changing the circumstances under which Jacob would be paid.

6. In order to protect one’s property from thieves.

Nonetheless, as a general rule, lying is wrong. Although, there are certain times when other values override the virtue of honesty, this kind of approach opens Pandora’s box. A subjective judgment about when it is acceptable and even appropriate to lie can be used improperly as an excuse to justify unethical behavior.

People lie all the time for a variety of reasons. Often people lie to avoid punishment, to gain advantage, or to protect someone’s feelings. But for others, lying seems to be a habitual part of conversation. Just how bad is the human penchant for lying? According to a 2002 study conducted at the University of Massachusetts, 60% of adults will lie at least once in the course of a 10-minute conversation. Even that number, which seems high, makes the situation sound better than it really is; among the 60% of people in the study who did lie, most told an average of 3 lies during their brief chat.

Now, I know you are sitting there right now thinking that you would be part of the 40% that didn’t lie. That’s what the liars in the study thought, too. When they watched their taped conversations, they were shocked at how many lies they had told. Another study, at the University of Virginia, found that people lie more often over the phone than face to face. Yet another study found that people lie more to strangers than to friends or family. Studies also show that while men and women lie equally, they tend to lie about different things. Men are more likely to lie about their achievements, while women are more likely to lie in order to protect someone’s feelings. Children start lying at the age of two and by age 4, 90% can lie convincingly. We lie to everyone. Parents bear the brunt of this tendency, according to the “Day America Told the Truth.” Eighty-six percent of us lie to our parents regularly. Seventy-five percent of us lie to our friends; 73% of us lie to our siblings, and 69% of us lie to our spouses.

In general, we lie about things that aren’t important, trivial things that we think will make us look better or seem more likeable. But sometimes we lie about things that matter. According to one estimate, 40% of people lie on their resumes. According to a study by Scientific American, a whopping 90% of people looking for a date on-line lied in their profile. While 10% of the lies we tell are a type of exaggerations, 60% of our lies are deceptive. And 70% of all liars claim to be willing to do it again..

From Parashat Toldot as well as other parshiot in the Torah we learn an important lesson: even our ancestors, chosen by God to create a world of justice and truth, had flaws and were deceitful. Torah does not seek to make them seem perfect, but exposes their sins so we may learn what constitutes poor character, as well as what is proper character.

On a very practical level, it is clear that when a person accustoms himself to speaking truthfully, people come to trust him, as the verse says: “a true tongue will be established forever.” On the other hand, one who is a habitual liar will not be trusted, as the verse continues: “but a lying tongue, just for a moment.” That is, his believability is short lived.

In conclusion, lying is a complex phenomenon that is influenced by many factors, such as personality traits, intelligence, and moral values. While some people lie more than others, lying is a universal human behavior that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

This discussion demonstrates that Jewish law does not take an absolutist approach to deception and, indeed, will obligate the individual to lie in various circumstances, for instance, lying to save a life or to bring peace or instances to achieve a greater good. This, by no means, makes light of the seriousness of lying. The Talmud is replete with statements that stress the importance of truth telling and remarks that “the Seal of God is Emet.”  Despite all this, the Talmud recognizes that there are situations where one might be untruthful.

Shabbat Shalom.