For many years, I was taught all the reasons that our biblical ancestor, Jacob, was supposedly not a cheat. “He didn’t defraud his father, Isaac, to get the blessing. He had already bought it”, “He didn’t really say ‘I am Esav your first born’. He really said ‘I am me. Esav is your first born.'”
These interpretations are a narrative of sorts. But I’ve come to understand that they are an interpretive narrative, not the original biblical one. In the biblical narrative, as written (peshat in Hebrew), Jacob is, to use the vernacular, a bit of a creep. He purchases a birthright from Esav as Esav is coming home famished. He flat-out lies to his dying father. He disguises himself as his brother. When, many years later, he meets up with Esav again, he works at their reunion to build trust. Then, as Esav departs, Jacob promises to follow, and instead, sneaks off in another direction.
Jacob’s trickiness is punished, measure for measure. His father-in-law tricks him, substituting Leah for Rachel at Jacob’s first marriage. And Jacob’s sons, Simon and Levi, become tricky. They reach out to the people of Shechem, suggesting they become circumcised as a step towards peace, and instead slaughter the people as a punishment for the seduction or rape of Dinah, their sister.
And so, thousands of years later, the Jacob of trickiness, rather than the Jacob to whose God we pray, is reflected in the recent news story of Orthodox Jews, arrested for bank fraud, conspiracy to make false statements to lenders, aggravated identity theft, and theft of public money http://www.lohud.com/story/news/crime/2014/11/13/fbi-arrests-mortgage-welfare-fraud/18961127/. In case the story of Jacob doesn’t give an excuse to those wishing to express anti-Semitic feelings, this recent news story does so.
It would be easy to say, as many have, that this case is the tip of the iceberg, at least in a relatively insular segment of the Jewish community. And perhaps there are other cases to come.
But as embarassing as it is to be connected to these people as co-religionists, I believe that the dissonance of the story is the descrepancy between what is the norm among committed Jews and what actually occured. In other words, this is the exception that proves the rule.
In over 35 years of serving the Jewish people, the vast, vast majority of fellow Jews that I encounter (Orthodox or not, religious or secular) are law-abiding men and women. The vast, vast majority are people who work hard in order to support themselves and their families. The vast, vast majority are ethical in their dealings with other human beings. The vast, vast majority do something in their day-to-day existence to try to make their communities and their world a better place.
It is frustrating and embarrassing to be grouped with these individuals and with the sneaky part of Jacob’s history.
But it is an honor to be grouped with the vast, vast majority of the Jewish people and with that part of Jacob’s story that transcended his early nature.