By Larry Herman, 18 November 2017
What do you do when people you admire, respect, or even love, disappoint you?
My father used to use the phrase, “feet of clay” and I had a hard time understanding what he meant. The dictionary definition is a weakness or hidden flaw in the character of a greatly admired or respected person: But this hardly captures the full meaning embodied in the original source text, the second chapter of Daniel:
O king, as you looked on, there appeared a great statue.
This statue, which was huge and its brightness surpassing, stood before you,
And its appearance was awesome.
The head of that statue was of fine gold;
Its breast and arms were of silver;
Its belly and thighs, of bronze;
Its legs were of iron, [but] its feet part iron and part clay.
As you looked on, a stone was hewn out, not by hands,
And struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay
And broke them to pieces.
All at once, the iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold were crushed,
And became like chaff of the threshing floors of summer;
A wind carried them off until no trace of them was left.
But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain
And filled the whole earth.
Not only are the feet of clay the flaw of the great and powerful idol, they are the means by which the powerful will be crushed, taking all of their richness, beauty and value with it, and leaving the destroyer made of worthless stone all powerful.
What happens when the hidden flaws are revealed? We don’t have much difficulty when those flaws are evident in people and characters that we otherwise disapprove of. We are the first to point them out, even to invent them, and to use them to denigrate and even to destroy.
But when those flaws are revealed in our heroes, in our idols, in our champions, in our leaders and in our loved ones, we face a real dilemma. And when character flaws seem to be ubiquitous, pervasive, and even to be part of human nature, we have a real predicament.
Can we live with the contradictions? Or do we acquiesce to the tendency to ignore them, to deny them, to rationalize them, or even to justify them.
Are there flaws that disqualify our heroes from that status? Can we separate the clay – the condemnable behavior – from the gold silver and bronze – the individual’s merits and accomplishments?
These questions never seemed so relevant as today, and they are the questions that also scream out at us from this week’s parsha.
As I studied the parsha, I was overwhelmed by the image of “feet of clay,” by the consequences of denying moral responsibility for the individuals involved and for society, and by the lengths to which our sages and commentators go to explain, justify and whitewash what appear to me to be undeniable flaws and shameful acts by our biblical heroes while at the same time defaming those that we identify as the villains of our narrative.
On the face of it, the actions of our heroes Yitzchak, Rebecca and Jacob seem at best morally questionable, at worst indefensible. On the other hand, the actions of Esau, the villain in our story, seem understandable and perhaps even laudable, even if he is a bit crude for our sensibilities
Let’s briefly review the main elements of the stories, the actions of our heroes, what seem to be the obvious ethical inferences, and the traditional ways that we are taught to interpret their behavior.
- In the story of the sale of the birthright, Esau politely – using the Hebrew word נא or please, if crudely, – using the term הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי which refers to feeding animals, asks Jacob for some porridge. Most translations ignore the please and focus on the crudeness of the request.
- Jacob then coerces Esau, taking advantage of his famished state and demands
First sell me your birthright
I doubt very much whether any of us, let alone a court, would consider this a fair exchange made by willing and equal parties.
- Let’s turn to the story where Yitzchak tells the people of Gerar that Rebecca is his sister. As Rabbi Dorff explained two weeks ago in Parshat Va’yera in the case of Abraham, Jacob is guilty of Geneivat Da’at, of deception, perhaps even more than Abraham. Rebecca was Jacob’s wife and his cousin once removed; but by no means was she his sister. This is not even a half-truth. It was a tactic, mistakenly used by both father and son to protect themselves. But by doing so Jacob leads the men of Gerar into temptation and endangers his wife by making them think that she was available.
- But it is the story of the stolen blessing that is especially problematic. Rebecca instructs Jacob to deceive Isaac in order to get the blessing intended for Esau. Was she not literally putting a stumbling block before the blind seeing as her husband was for all intents and purposes blind and knowing that her son would obey her?
- Jacob protests that his father will discover the deceit and curse him, suggesting that he more concerned with being caught than with the immorality of the deceit.
- Rebecca’s response is that the curse will be hers and not his and demands that he obey her. She is placing him in a position that no parent should ever put their child in, to choose between their two parents.
- Jacob flat out lies to his father and says,
אָנֹכִי֙ עֵשָׂ֣ו בְּכֹרֶ֔ךָ עָשִׂ֕יתִי כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ אֵלָ֑י
I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me
But many commentators parse the verse differently, to read:
I am the one who brings you food, Esau is your first born.
in clear contradiction to the obvious meaning of the verse.
- When Isaac asks Jacob how he managed to succeed so quickly, Jacob invokes the name of God in responding to his father
Because Adonai your God granted me good fortune
Is he not taking God’s name in vain, committing blasphemy or hilul hashem?
- When Isaac recognizes Jacob’s voice, and gives him an opportunity to admit the truth by asking,
אַתָּ֥ה זֶ֖ה בְּנִ֣י עֵשָׂ֑ו
Are you really my son Esau?
Is he not being as absolutely deceitful as a son can be and showing the utmost contempt for his father? But again, some of our commentators use the defense that Jacob did not say that he was Esau, but rather “It is I.”
- Neither is Isaac blameless. He acknowledges to Esau that it was Jacob who received his blessing, instead of simply blessing Esau, as he eventually does. Is he not creating, or at least exacerbating the conditions for a fraternal death feud.
- And when Isaac acknowledges that Jacob came to him בְּמִרְמָ֑ה, in deceit, Rashi chooses instead to translate it as subtlety or cleverness.
- Further, Isaac shows moral weakness in asking Esau
מָ֥ה אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה בְּנִֽי
What, then, can I still do for you, my son?
As if it is the son and not the father who should find a solution to this horrible situation.
- Rebecca then determines to send Jacob to her brother, whom she already knows to be a deceiver, without any warning. Can she expect anything more than what ends up happening next week when Lavan deceives Jacob regarding Rachel and Leah?
- Neither does Rebecca take any responsibility for the fraud perpetrated against her husband and eldest son when she tells Jacob to stay with Lavan,
until your brother’s anger against you subsides—and he forgets what you have done to him?
taking no responsibility for her role in deceiving her husband and endangering her most beloved son.
- Adding to the deception, Rebecca manipulates Isaac, encouraging him to send Jacob to Paddan-Aram, without revealing the enmity between the brothers and depriving Isaac an opportunity to attempt a reconciliation.
All of these demonstrate our Biblical heroes feet of clay.
But what of Esau, the wounded, and we might say “innocent” party in these stories? Look at how easily we find fault and ignore virtue.
- At the end of Chapter 26 we are told that Esau, at age 40, marries two Hittite women which displeases his parents. Without basis from the text, Rashi compares Esau to a boar, and claims that he is rebellious. But do we have any evidence to believe that the parents, Isaac and Rebecca, advised him to wed a relative rather than a Canaanite? Did they suggest that he travel to Paddan-Aram to find a wife?
- In the story of the stolen blessing, Isaac asks Esau to do a favor for an old man. Esau responds immediately with filial obedience, but it does not seem that he receives any credit for this in our tradition. In fact, Rashi finds fault by suggesting that Esau might steal an animal rather than bring his father kosher meat.
- After learning of the theft, in respect for his father, Esau restrains his anger and delays his intended attack on Jacob while his father is still alive, rather than lashing out immediately.
- And even after everything, Esau attempts to please and placate his parents by marrying his cousin, the daughter of Ishmael, again receiving no credit for doing so.
Many of our sages and contemporary commentators take great pains to rationalize and explain away the obvious moral implications of the parsha by means of Midrash and contorted justifications. Jacob and Rebecca were right to deceive Esau and Isaac because they knew that Jacob and not Esau would carry on the mission of Abraham and Isaac. Jacob was worthy, Esau was not, and Isaac was psychologically blind to the merits of the two sons. Thus the ends justify the means.
But this is not the only way to understand the story. This pattern of deceit and dishonesty led to more of the same and great strife in the life of Jacob. It deprived Rebecca of the company of her beloved son. And we can only guess at how Isaac felt during the last 57 years of his life, presumably blind and perhaps estranged from his family.
I am not a Torah scholar. I am not placing my simple understanding of the text and the commentaries above those who have studied them and are better placed to make judgements about their validity. But I’m struck by how easy it is for us to turn these stories upside-down and inside out.
Is the choice to ignore, deny or rationalize the clay feet of our heroes, past and present, on the one hand; or to smash their feet of clay and with it bring down their gold, silver and bronze, on the other. Or do we recognize their complexity and imperfections, acknowledge their flaws, draw appropriate lessons, and value the goodness that they have done and may yet do in the future.
These are difficult questions and not easily answered.