Thursday, December 1, 2011

Self Promotion & Trust at Work and Between Groups - Vayetze

Self righteous and occupying the "moral high" ground, or
at least positioning oneself to appear to be good one

One of Orthodox Judaism’s most prominent religious authorities was deeply distrustful of Christian intentions in initiating Interfaith dialogue[1]. He was concerned that it was a plot to convert Jews, a proposition based on generations of bad blood, but one that would be discredited by the evidence of the following fifty years of dialogue. Trust between Jews and Muslims can be particularly difficult to achieve but with many notable exceptions such as my own experience in Together For Humanity[2], and projects such as JCMA[3], Project Abraham[4], the Three Faiths Forum[5] and Jihadi Jew[6].

Another set of relationships that can be difficult revolve around work. In both inter-religious and work relationships one of the destructive dynamics is the attempt by one party or both trying to position themselves as “the good one”, and the other as “the bad one”. Once I became aware of this dynamic, watching people engage it makes me want to scream. This is a discussion about how trust and honour are earned and given, or lost and withdrawn. 

Clear as Mud
Some people like to combine a game of positioning themselves as virtuous, with also keeping things as vague as they can, to maximize their own options later.  An example of this double whammy is when Jacob proposes the payment for his work for Laban, he does so in a manner that has become the standard expression for clarity still in use among religious Jews today, בְּרָחֵל בִּתְּךָ הַקְּטַנָּה. He agrees to work for seven years “for Rachel, your daughter, the younger one[7]. The decent response to that proposal would be an equally clear confirmation that the terms were either acceptable or not. Instead Laban offers a dishonest[8], “shifty, vague and ambiguous[9]” response with this self glorifying statement “"It is better that I give her to you than I should give her to another man. Stay with me[10]". ‘Trust me’, he seems to say brazenly when he is the last person with the right to demand trust.

Vague Language
A Laban type response is particularly frustrating if one is already concerned about the honesty of the other party or whether their expectations will be realised in the end, as Jacob was[11]. Commentary[12] suggests that Laban had already decided then to give Jacob his daughter Leah instead of Jacob’s beloved Rachel. Craftily, he also uses the word “give” which implies a gift to Jacob rather than an exchange and weakens Jacob’s position. Then in the guise of wanting the pleasure of Jacob’s company he throws in a clause “Stay with me” that will force Jacob to work under the watchful eyes of Laban.  Laban will later swindle Jacob, by repeatedly changing the terms of the deal between them[13].  

Over the years in my interfaith work, I have received some meaningless vague big-picture-yes responses to interfaith cooperation that in fact turned out to mean “I don’t have any desire to be involved but I want to sound good, or maybe make you feel good so I will imply a yes when the real answer is no”.

Brother in Scams?
A natural response to feeling cheated whether at work on in the inter-group context is to respond in kind. My assumption would be that “two wrongs don’t make a right” and that one should never cheat and that while it is a better use of time to focus on sincere people, it is wrong to give up on sincerity.  I wonder what messages can be found in the story of Jacob and Laban. The Talmud[14] elaborates on Jacob’s comment to Rachel that he was her father’s brother[15], with the following exchange.
Jacob to Rachel: Mary me.
Rachel: Yes. But my father is a swindler and you won’t be able to manage with him.
Jacob: I am his brother in swindling[16]
Rachel: Is it allowed for a Righteous person to engage in swindling?
Jacob: Yes, “with a pure one you show yourself pure; but with the perverse one, you deal crookedly[17].

Implications of a Licence For the Low Road
One recent article, discusses the difference between Jacob’s two names. It relates the name Jacob to his grabbing Esau’s heel during their birth and represents “attacking at the heel; … to deal, sometimes, deceitfully and surreptitiously”. It also makes a link to current political realities, making the comment that “when we are surrounded by 140 million people wishing to destroy us, we cannot always go with the 'high-road' behaviour. We have to come back to the practices of 'Jacob’[18]”. I lack the expertise to comment on matters of defence and I do not presume to give anyone advice about the Torah sanctioned right to self defence, yet this type of interpretation is one that would make me and many other Jews both in Israel and outside it very uncomfortable.

Jacob’s Actions; a Licence?
A simple reading of the text might yield the conclusion that Jacob carried out his threat to be Laban’s brother in deception. Consider how he creatively implements a profit sharing agreement with Laban. The deal was that Jacob would remove all the speckled and spotted goats and all the brown sheep, then any animals that will be born with these characteristics will belong to Jacob[19]. Jacob then puts spotted or brown sticks in front of the animals when they are in heat, this tactic results in many goats and sheep being born with the appearances that lands them in Jacob’s possession. 

Interpretations of Sticks as Evidence against Defrauding Fraudsters
Commentaries seek to justify Jacob’s action. The simplest is that the sticks method of genetic modification does not work, and the result was due to divine intervention[20]. Another view is that there was a condition in the agreement with Laban that allowed Jacob to use the sticks and he had his permission[21].

Alternatively, Jacob only used this practice after some goats were born with the spots without intervention. He was concerned that these goats would have offspring without spots that would rightfully belong to him, but Laban would claim them because they have no spots. He used the sticks only for his legitimately earned spotted goats[22].

One can argue about the plausibility of these justifications, but that is less important than the implication that it would have been wrong for Jacob to rob Laban, even though Laban was a thief. There are other interpretations that might not support this approach[23]. Perhaps the most compelling point is Jacob’s assertion that he served Laban loyally with all his strength[24], working and be consumed by scorching heat during the day and frost by night[25].

The Face Game
Laban works relentlessly on putting Jacob down in comparison to his righteous self. When he first invites him to stay he declares but you are my brother. The word “but” is interpreted as “you have been distanced from all your relatives because of your deceiving your brother twice but you are my relative and I won’t distance you[26](because I am so good of course). When Jacob finally escapes from the toxic situation with Laban, Laban pursues him and offers this gem. “What have you done?! you lead my daughters like captives of the sword…why didn’t you tell me and I would send you away with songs, drums and the lyre. You didn’t let me kiss my sons and daughters, now you have done foolishly[27]

Laban then accuses Jacob of stealing his occult artefact called the Teraphim[28]. Jacob explodes, after a fiery defence of his integrity he makes a curse for anyone who stole Laban’s Teraphim. Unbeknown to him Rachel had stolen them[29]. Our tradition teaches us that Jacob’s curse was realised[30] when Rachel died a short time later at the age of 36[31]. While her sin of stealing the Teraphim is said to have caused her not to be buried in the cave of the righteous (in double cave in Hebron)[32], but it is also a direct result of Jacob’s curse. This is the second error in judgement that Jacob makes, the other he is assuming that the shepherds he sees hanging around a well are neglecting their duties when in fact they had a perfectly legitimate reason to be there[33].  

Rather than using our energy convincing people that we are “the good one”, we should just be good and let our behaviour and character speak for itself. It is very sad that people so often demand trust when they don’t deserve it. Perhaps we can resist judging people who like our prominent Rabbi at the beginning of the post who might have heard or seen too much to be able to trust again. Yet, we must thank God, there are not that many Laban’s around and we should not assume that “they are all like that” or that the way things were, is the way they still are. We must pick ourselves up after our trust has been betrayed and trust all over again, albeit a bit more alert.  There are many decent beautiful people in our world of all faiths and skills sets, let us work with them. 

[1] Feinstien, R. Moshe, Igros Moshe, vol. 6, p 278, letter with a ruling dated February or March 1967, Adar 1, 5727
[7] Genesis 29:18
[8] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, adds the word “Rmiyu”, deception, to his translation of “And Laban said” in verse 19.
[9] Leibowitz, N, New Studies in Bereshit, p.321, Jewish Agency, Special Edition, Lambda Publishers, Brookly New York
[10] Genesis 29:19
[11] Rashi Genesis 29:18
[12] Ohr Hachayim on Genesis 29:19
[13] Genesis 31:7
[14] Talmud Megilah 13b
[15] Genesis 29:12
[16] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel has Jacob saying “I am a swindler, and clever, more that he is is and he will have no permission/ability to do bad to me as the word of God is in my assistance
[17] Samuel II, 22:27, with slight variation also in Psalms 18:27
[19] Genesis 30:32
[20] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
[21] Bchor Shor, Ohr Zarua Hagadol, evidence for this proposition is the fact that Jacob did this openly in full view of all the shepherds for six years where it would have been impossible that it would not become known to Laban
[22] Radak in the name of his father
[23] Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot and Ohr Hachayim both have explanations that involve Laban violating the agreement which justifies Jacob taking counter-measures to protect what was his, with the former referring to the phrase “with a pure one you show yourself pure; but with the perverse one, you deal crookedly”.
[24] Genesis 31:6
[25] Genesis 31:39
[26] Chizkuni
[27] Genesis 31:26-28
[28] Ibn Ezra describes the Teraphim as being part of a practice in which a skull of a first born would be used in magical practices
[29] Genesis 31:31-32
[30] Beresheet Rabba 74, Rashi
[31] Seder Olam (Order of the World) Chapter 2, an alternative view is that she was 45 (Sefer Hayashar, cited in Torah Shlaima)
[32] Midrash Aseret Hadibrot 40, cited in Torah Shlaima vol 2, p1236
[33] Genesis 29:7-8


  1. A Comment on FacebookDecember 3, 2011 at 10:03 PM

    Um, Zalman, isn't this exactly what you're doing when you say "It drives me crazy to see people try to put their own group or themselves up by putting others down. "? : )

  2. Interesting point. I think it is legitimate to put down certain behaviours like arrogance and to say that humility is superior to it. I am comfortable with someone saying "we are so fortunate that we have Chasidism as a path to follow and we think this is the best path. It's when people focus on the inferiority of other people and also when they think of themselves as personally superior that I see a problem.