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The Peril of Perfection

29 Nov

by Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) z”l

Give truth to Jacob?

It is widely accepted that Jacob our patriarch represents the attribute of truth, as the prophet says of him, “Give truth to Jacob.”1 In practice, however, throughout many of the stories we read of him, it seems that Jacob acts evasively, often deviously. That is the case in Parshat Toldot, that is the case in Parshat Vayeitzei, and that is also the case in Parshat Vayishlach.2

The problem is formulated most sharply in this week’s parshah, in connection with Jacob’s sons: “And Jacob’s sons replied to Shechem and Chamor his father with guile (bemirma).”3 Onkelos removes some of the negative overtones of “with guile” by translating “bemirma” as “with wisdom,” but nonetheless, this is crooked wisdom, wisdom that is characterized by deception.

From all the narratives about Jacob, Micah’s plea, “Give truth to Jacob,” seems very difficult to understand.

Jacob’s three Hebrew names – Yaakov, Yisrael, and Yeshurun – all express some element of truth. The almost inverse relationship between the name “Yeshurun” and the name “Yaakov” appears in clear contrast in a verse in Isaiah, “and the crooked (he’akov) shall be made straight (lemishor).”4 Apparently, this transition from Yaakov to Yeshurun is integral to Jacob’s essence.

A world of falsehood

Falsehood can be defined as the absence of an accurate relationship between the true inner part of an entity and its superficial outer part. Falsehood is the disparity between the actual and the appearance, between the thing itself and the outward impression that is formed. Often, when people are called “liars,” “hypocrites,” or “deceivers,” these are people whose insides differ from their outsides.

One of the most basic falsehoods in the world is the falsehood inherent in social life. Social life is only possible when people refrain from expressing their true feelings and opinions regarding others. In practice, no society can exist at all without falsehoods.

Everyone understands the need for this type of falsehood: These are the structures by which society operates. One does not share one’s every thought or opinion with everyone. The Hebrew expression “derech eretz,” literally, “the way of the land,” refers to the concept of social politeness. What people call “derech eretz” is this whole institution of social falsehoods, which society is unfortunately unable to do without. Such behavior includes showing respect even to those one does not respect, saying things that one does not mean when these are expected of him, and holding in things that one would like to say. A look at how young children express themselves reveals that, often, their problems stem from the fact that their speech is uninhibited. This is not to suggest that adults consciously and deliberately lie, but merely that they do not always tell the whole truth. This is part of the ­system of social conventions. In this sense, falsehood can be thought of as a kind of garment that people wear, whose function is to conceal aspects of one’s self.

In society, some take this idea to the extreme. For example, there are people who believe that modesty should be shunned because it is a form of falsehood. Some of these people advocate nudism for this reason. After all, if a person appears this way on the inside, he ought to appear this way on the outside as well – indeed, why be false? To their mind, removing one’s physical and spiritual garments makes the world much cleaner. The world’s first garment was a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. If man had not sinned, he would not have needed a garment.

An additional level of falsehood, which likewise stems from a discrepancy between the internal and the external, lies in the gap between one’s inner desires and what one expresses externally. Here, the connection (or lack thereof) between inside and outside runs much deeper. This kind of falsehood is, to a large degree, a social necessity as well. A person who is stranded on a deserted island can say or do whatever he wants without social repercussions. In society, however, there are many things that people would like to do but nevertheless refrain from doing, since many types of conduct are considered unacceptable.

Many philosophers built their entire world views on this question – what is the relationship between things themselves and their external appearance? Or formulated much more pointedly, can a genuine entity actually exist in the world? Is there such a thing as truth in the world? In a telling line, Rava avows that “there is no truth” in the world,5 a depressing prospect for many of us to accept.

A person’s existence is built on a system of restraints, from the falsehood of conventional social manners, to the falsehood of outer coverings of all kinds, to the gap between what one feels in his heart and what one reveals outwardly. This world innately and by necessity demands of us not to be truthful. It forces us to refrain from expressing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even when we would love nothing more than to do so.

The Mishna states that “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, will ultimately cause every tzaddik to inherit 310 worlds.”6 Why is each and every tzaddik given 310 worlds? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the tzaddikim to share these worlds? What can a tzaddik do with so many worlds? It must be that the ultimate reward for tzaddikim will be that each tzaddik will be able to create his own complete world, a world that truly suits him, his desires, and his dreams. Presumably, once he accomplishes this, one world will not be enough. A person needs 310 worlds in order to be everything that he wishes simultaneously, each world containing a different, unique version of him.

In our worldly existence, where many more than 310 of us must coexist, we often get in each other’s way, to the point where we must live in a reality where the internal and the external do not correspond. This world, by its very nature and structure, is full of falsehood, and in a world of falsehood, the choice between truth and falsehood does not exist. Hence, our recurring question in this world is not whether to be truthful or not; in actuality, the whole truth was never within our grasp in the first place.

The choice that we have in the reality of this world is a lot less dramatic than the abstract question of truth versus falsehood, but it is a much more nuanced question. In a world where only partial truths exist, how and to what extent should we accept the inevitability of falsehood? Should we be satisfied with half-truths, quarter-truths, or three-quarters truths? If we accept that a life of total truth is impossible, the least that we can do is set forth guidelines as to the manner in which we do not speak truth.

“‘Very good’ refers to the evil inclination”

It may be surprising, but just as there is an evil inclination to falsehood, the desire to constantly adhere to the truth can be a type of evil inclination as well, one that at times is much worse than the inclination to falsehood. Indeed, it turns out that a person can experience a spiritual fall not only by pursuing things that are overtly evil, but also by going to the other extreme. There is a certain appeal to the notion that one must make an unequivocal decision to either be entirely good or entirely evil, but one must realize that this is a false dilemma: Neither of these choices is the proper path.

It is much more difficult to withstand this type of evil inclination than to withstand an ordinary evil inclination, not because being entirely good is an inherently undesirable thing – on the contrary, in an ideal world this approach would be recommended – but because it sets an unreasonable standard by which to live.

Our sages7 agree that the man whom Jacob encounters is Esau’s guardian angel, who represents the evil inclination, the Angel of Death, and evil in general. They disagree, however, as to the form in which Esau’s angel appeared to Jacob. According to one opinion, “he appeared to him in the guise of a heathen.” According to another, “he appeared to him as a chief bandit.” But there is also an opinion that “he appeared to him as one of the wise.”8

When Esau’s angel appears as a bandit, we recognize him. He explicitly says, “Rejoice, O youth, while you are young! Let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.”9 When one encounters pure evil, it does not attempt to hide its agenda. It does not sell a system of values; it does not sell wisdom and morality; it sells crude merchandise unabashedly. To be sure, the struggle against pure evil is not always easy, but it is a very clear type of struggle.

When, however, Esau’s angel appears as “one of the wise,” he presents arguments that can be very convincing. He does not sell you this world; he sells you the World to Come, a very tempting prospect. The obvious question is: If this entity is so good, if he is so wise, why is he the guardian angel of Esau?

There are people in this world whose deviation from all things holy came not as a result of their association with heathens or bandits, but as a result of their association with wise men. Their fall was a result of their attempt to set impossible standards. The evil inclination presents a type of world whose requirements cannot be met; in such a world, an inner crisis is inevitable. The evil inclination confronts every individual with an insidious false dilemma: Are you righteous or wicked? Are you a decent person or not? According to the evil inclination, every person must choose a side – he must be one or the other, and if he is neither, there is no place for him in this world.

Facing these questions, a person will likely identify in himself some element that is incompatible with his self-image as a tzaddik or as a person who follows a righteous path. As a result, he jumps to the conclusion that he is a liar and a hypocrite, deceiving both himself and others. This mindset is not sustainable; eventually he will feel the need, in the interest of avoiding “hypocrisy,” to eschew righteousness altogether.

This portrayal is not merely theoretical. There are many people who are affected by this type of evil inclination and this type of thinking much more than they are by the “standard” evil inclination, which openly tempts and entices people to sin. People frequently fall to this warped moral reasoning precisely because their souls are pure, and it is hard for them to come to terms with deficiency and imperfection. For such people, the usual, straightforward temptation of the evil inclination is less dangerous than the presentation of life in black and white terms.

The downfall of Elisha b. Avuyah, known as “Acher” (“Other”), was partially a result of his inability to come to terms with this predicament – the world’s intrinsic imperfection. A person encounters such a reality, he falls, he descends, and there is no remedy for him, because he cannot reconcile himself with the imperfect reality.

On the verse, “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good (tov meod),”10 the Midrash expounds, “‘Good’ refers to life; ‘very good’ refers to the Angel of Death. ‘Good’ refers to the good inclination; ‘very good’ refers to the evil inclination.”11 Elsewhere, the Midrash relates that Rabbi Meir had written in his personal Torah scroll that “‘And behold, it was very (meod) good’ means ‘And behold, death (mavet) is good’.”12 The evil inclination emphasizes “very good” so strongly that it negates all of existence. Ordinary existence is almost never “very good”; hence, “very good” refers to the Angel of Death. The Angel of Death espouses the philosophy of perfection because there is no reality in which absolute perfection can be realized, leading a person to frustration and despair.

The very same evil inclination that generally appears as a bandit appears here as a wise man. The same evil inclination that appeared in the Garden of Eden as a serpent13 appears here as “very good,” and in both instances it leads to the same death.

The children of Jacob-Israel

In every possible real-life situation, we encounter this imperfection, this flawed existence, and this holds true even for truly great people. In this world, we cannot attain absolute perfection, absolute truth, or absolute good. What is required of us is an incredibly difficult form of existence. We must live continually with partial truth, which stems from compromise.

In this world, pure truth exists only in theory, not in actual practice. No material in the world can be 100 percent pure. Man has never ­succeeded – and apparently never will succeed – in finding or creating such a material, for this world, by its very nature, is not suited for absolute purity.

In our spiritual work, the question we face is often not that of truth versus falsehood, but how much truth can we manage to introduce into things that we concede can never be completely true and pure. It is our struggle for the truth, not our achievement of absolute truth, that defines us.

In the reality of this world, the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line. To leave a room via the shortest route, in most cases one would have to break through the nearest wall. In reality, however, it is more advisable to go through the door. The route that is theoretically the straightest and the simplest is usually practically unfeasible.

It is for this reason that we are called the People of Israel; we are children of Jacob in that he represents our spiritual path, reminding us of the problem of “Give truth to Jacob” that is built into our world. This is our struggle with life, just as Jacob must struggle with his path, which is fraught with danger on both sides – from both the bandit and the wise man.

Jacob sets out on his journey, and instead of forging straight ahead continuously, without any deviation, his path is full of twists and bends, an integral feature of his (and, by extension, every person’s) progress through life. Straight lines exist only in geometry; the real world is full of curves. To a large degree, our challenge is to maintain an overarching sense of direction and purpose for the duration of life’s journey, despite the twists along the way. We must find the way to maneuver between the bandit on one side and the wise man on the other – and to stick to it.

This “truth” of Jacob includes how he acts with Esau and with Laban, deceitful as those interactions may appear. Jacob’s truth is not a pure, abstract truth, but the truth that can be achieved in the real world. Because of this, Jacob is a figure that the Torah charges us to emulate, not despite his “truth,” but because of it.

No one can break through all of his limits and limitations, but one can certainly try to find a way around them, emerging from them somehow unscathed, by forgoing the unattainable perfect truth.

Jacob, the most truthful of the patriarchs, says of Laban, “I am his brother in deceit.”14 Jacob does not say this because he actually considers himself a deceitful person; he says it because in order to preserve his own truth in Laban’s world, he must also take this approach.

The Talmud tells of a man who said the word “true” twice upon completing the Shema, saying of him, “‘True, true’ got hold of this person.”15 Rashi explains, “A stream of truth seized this man” – in other words, the insanity of the truth killed him. The evil inclination of truth is the attempt to find a “stream of truth” in one’s life, to maintain a lifestyle to whose standard it is impossible to adhere.

Jacob admits that all he can do is live within his reality. For this reason, Jacob is not straightforward. This world – “the world of division”16 – does not allow things to proceed in an ideal and direct way. While Isaiah’s hope for the future is that “the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places shall become a plain,”17 until then, the road remains winding.

In passing through the various stages of life, when we pursue the truth as much as possible, we must endure many imperfections along the way. Only then will we be able to reach the highest level of truth within the reality of this world.

As taken from, The Peril of Perfection – Vayishlach – Kabbalah, Chassidism and Jewish Mysticism (chabad.org)

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

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