"Jacob Deceives Isaac" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"Jacob Deceives Isaac" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Jacob lies to his dad — so why does our tradition call him a ‘Man of Truth’?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 25:19-28:9

Of the many storylines that exist within the Book of Genesis (Beresheit), one of the most puzzling is the episode of Jacob and his father’s blessing.

The narrative is dramatic and on the surface raises moral and ethical issues for a nation that evokes the memory of their Patriarch, Jacob, multiple times on a daily basis.

What seems more bizarre is that Jacob is known by the Sages as Ish Emet, or Man of Truth. The verse of the Prophet Micah (7:20) reads, “Give truth to Yaakov [Jacob].” How can someone at the heart of such deception come to be known as a Man of Truth?

A quick review of the story: Isaac summons Esau to bring game to eat so that he may bless him before he dies. Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, overhears the conversation and tells her son, Jacob, to bring her two goats so that she can prepare them for his father, and so that he can enter and take the blessing. She then dresses Jacob with the goat hair and he presents himself as Esau. Isaac delivers the blessing, which includes domination of his brother and material prosperity, and then Jacob exits. Almost immediately, Esau returns with the game and asks for the blessing. Isaac informs him that the blessing has already been bestowed on his brother, and that there is nothing left for him. Esau cries and Issac finds a blessing for him as well. Esau then swears that he is going to kill Jacob after their father’s death, and Jacob flees to his uncle’s house.

There are many questions that can be raised by the episode.

Why could Rebecca not have told Isaac that he is making a mistake in blessing Esau? How could Jacob listen to his mother and deceive his father? Why did it take so much prodding on Esau’s part to convince Isaac that he had another blessing to spare?

In answering these questions and others, I am going to credit Rabbi David Fohrman with a theory that ties together the entire story.

Traditional Judaism firmly believes that there are two worlds that will be experienced. There is this world, which is physical, and there is a world to come that is completely spiritual.

Isaac had twin sons that were completely different from one another. Jacob is described early on in the parashah as a wholesome man who dwelled in tents and Esau is a man of the field (Genesis 25:27). It is a father’s dream that both his children would carry on his legacy, and it seems that Jacob was clearly predisposed to rule in the world to come.

But Esau was perfect for this material world in which we find ourselves. In an ideal state, they would divide responsibilities and Esau would direct his use of this world to Jacob’s vision for what was required in the next world.

Unfortunately, Rebecca understood that Esau has no intention of using his talent to direct the physical world toward something more spiritual. If he would take the blessings of this world, it would only lead to unbridled power.

But how can one convince a father that his elder son has no place in the family business? Further, how would she be able to convince Isaac that Jacob should receive both blessings?

She takes action and dresses up Jacob in physicality. When he does appear in front of his blind father, Isaac exclaims, “the voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau!” In other words, there is a person in front of him that has the spiritual side of Jacob and the physical side of Esau. Can such a person really exist? So Isaac draws him near enough to even smell him and then declares the blessings of material prosperity to rule this world.

When Esau does appear, and Isaac realizes that it must have been Jacob all along, he has nothing left to give. Jacob would be able to synthesize the priorities of both worlds.

After hearing the cries of Esau, he finally blesses him with material prosperity, but tells him that he must serve his brother unless he is aggrieved. At that point, he can cast the yoke off from his neck. (Genesis 27:38-41)

What would it mean for Esau to be aggrieved? If Jacob does not take responsibility for the world the way that he should and carry on his father’s legacy of instilling ethical monotheism in humanity? In a sense, Esau will serve as a check on his brother.

Once Rebecca hears the role that Isaac found for Esau, she can make peace with being his mother. Throughout the narrative, Jacob is referred to as “her son” and Esau as “his son”. At the conclusion, she is called “mother of Jacob and Esau.”(Genesis 28:5)

Where does that leave our “Man of Truth”?

Jacob acted with full integrity. He understood the severity of the blessings and felt obliged to save the planet from his brother. He understood that his mother was right.

The word emet in Hebrew means more than just truth. It means integrity. Jacob was not out for self-gain. He was on a mission to fulfill the Will of God. That is what has earned him his title.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.