Bad behavior in the Bible delivers timeless lessons

Toledot

Genesis 25:19-28:9

Malachi 1:1-2:7

"The heart is deceitful above all other things" (Jeremiah 17:9). Other sagacious writers have echoed this prophet's bleak comment on human nature. Nietzsche observed, "Lying is a necessity of life, a part of the terrifying and problematic character of existence," while Goethe asserted that truth is "contrary to our nature because it demands that we recognize ourselves as limited."

If the main thrust of religious enterprise is to teach people how to restrain this base human instinct, then it all too often fails. The inability to provide ethical inspiration is demonstrated by the protagonists in Toledot, this week's Torah portion. The Genesis story includes parents who played favorites and jockeyed to position the success of favored children, deception of a father and husband, collusion of a mother and son, and flight motivated by fear of the defrauded child's revenge.

Indeed, the dishonorable interactions of Rebecca, Isaac, Jacob and Esau are characteristic of human failings. Although later biblical commentators rationalized away the deceit so blatantly portrayed in Toledot, this behavior is emblematic of the difficulty religion faces when trying to advocate ethical behavior.

Whereas the guile portrayed in Toledot lays the groundwork for later and greater dishonesty, the Torah depicts such base ignoble human behavior in the hope it will also provide an ethical compass avoiding fraud and deceit. Such business, civic and personal ethical guide posts seem more necessary now that corporate treachery and fraud have stained the 21st century with corruption, scandal and erosion of trust. The names of Enron along with Arthur Andersen, Global Crossing, Adelphia, Tyco, Dynegy, ImClone and many others have become synonymous for self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement and unbridled ambition and greed.

Should we blame business and public figures whose misconduct violates basic rules of human decency? Toledot reminds us where moral turpitude and the diminution of ethical responsibility starts not at the top with amoral corporate executives or politicians, but at a more basic level, long before business executives receive their MBAs and elected government officials serve their terms.

A troubling incident that occurred early this year illustrates where moral decay begins. Christine Pelton, a 27-year-old Piper, Kan., high-school biology teacher gave her students a simple assignment: Collect 20 different kinds of leaves and write two paragraphs about each. When Pelton read the reports, she noticed suspicious similarities among the papers and ran them through an Internet program that searches for plagiarized material. When she discovered that 28 out of 118 papers had material directly lifted from other sources, she gave zeros to those 28 students.

The parents of the failing students complained that their children would never cheat and that their reputations were being impugned. After meetings with the principal, superintendent of schools and the school board, it was decided that the punishment did not fit the crime. Directed to raise the grades, Pelton refused and resigned from her position saying, "It's not just biology; you're teaching [students] a lot more than that. You're teaching them to be honest people, to have integrity, to listen, to be good citizens."

Unfortunately, other examples abound: The popular historian Stephen Ambrose, who died last month, admitted to plagiarism; historian Joseph Ellis lied about heroic service in Vietnam; George O'Leary, Notre Dame's football coach, resigned his position after admitting that he had falsified his résumé.

Such dishonesty even makes its way into universities, where bending admission procedures to accept athletes who would not otherwise make the grade doesn't seem to bother most people. The highest levels of government, business and even religion have not been exempt from such misconduct.

We can blame our moral lapses and unscrupulous behavior on others, but if Toledot teaches a student of the Torah nothing else, it shows that ethical development and behavior must begin early and at home. When parents fail to set examples and do not expect their children to live unsullied lives, the children make such a mindset their own. However, those children who grow up to become upstanding citizens frequently have parents who are strong ethical models themselves, and who teach their children that free will gives them the power to affect their lives and those of others for the good.