To Tell the Truth: Deciding Between Competing Torah Values

The Torah admonishes against falsehood in Shemot (23:7): "midevar sheker tirchak - distance yourself from a false word," and in Vayikra (19:11): "...v'lo teshakru, ish l'amito - a man shall not lie to his friend."

Of the three Avot, Yaakov is most closely associated with the midda of "truth." In parshat Toldot (25:27), Yaakov is described as an "ish tam" (which Rashi explains to mean an honest individual - "ela kelibo ken piv, mi she-eino charif leramot karui tam"). See also Micha 7:20 - "Tetayn emet le'Yaakov" - You have given truth to Yaakov."

Yet, in parshat Toldot, we see Yaakov acting with apparent deceit when he presents himself to Yitzchak as Esav. Perhaps most glaringly, Yitzchak asks, "Who are you, my son?," and Yaakov responds, "It is I, Esav, your firstborn." To be sure, Rashi interprets Yaakov's response as technically truthfully by splitting Yaacov's words into two separate statements, "It is I" and "Esav is your firstborn," so that there was no falsehood. But Rashi's interpretation seems forced, and other commentators disagree and explain that Yaacov deceived Yitzchak, albeit to achieve a just result (see commentary of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch; Radak, Ibn Ezra).

How do we reconcile these apparently inconsistent sources? Clearly, it is a bad middah, if not an outright prohibition, to lie. Yet, it seems that "deceit" is sanctioned when more important, overriding values are at stake.

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