On a theology of deception
Sometimes things just work out fine. We worry about this or that, preoccupying ourselves with this detail or that detail, agonizing about a mistake that we have made, fretting about a missed opportunity. But – as the carefree Israeli phrase goes, yihyeh b’seder – it will be in order: everything’s going to be alright, everything’s gonna be ok.
I’m thinking, of course, of Jacob in today’s Torah portion. As Ryan told us already, Jacob is the biblical trickster par excellence. He and Rachel are made for each other – she also steals from her father and uses all her feminine wiles that the theft be not revealed. And in Rachel’s father, Laban, Jacob seems to have met his match. Not only does Laban trick Jacob into marrying his older daughter Leah and not his younger one, Rachel, to whom Jacob was betrothed, but in resolving this nuptial debacle he secures Jacob as his worker for another seven years, double the amount of time that the latter originally intended. And when Jacob marries his trickster mentality with his flair for science and makes a bumper deal involving the genetic engineering of the sheep he has been watching, Laban is outraged and runs to catch up with Jacob and his caravans as they sneak away from his territory.
And yet, just as Laban is poised to pounce on his fugacious son-in-law, God warns him not to try anything: “Beware of trying anything with Jacob, good or bad.” Instead Laban attacks Jacob with questions, “Why did you keep me in the dark? Why did you carry off my two daughters like captives? Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me?” And as the questions culminate, Laban plays to the gallery with the plaintive cry: “You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren goodbye!” What grown man would not have his heart-strings torn to shreds by such a doleful outpouring of pathos!
And ultimately, Laban and Jacob, father-in-law and son-in-law, come to an understanding. They make a deal: Jacob agrees not to ill-treat Laban’s daughters and to marry no other women. Laban agrees territorial boundaries with Jacob: neither will cross the mound and the pillar that they have set up at the place where they made this covenant. It seems to be a win-win situation, Laban secures the future of his grandchildren, Jacob gets peace on his borders. And neither have to worry about visiting the in-laws for Christmas, or Rosh Hashanah.
There was a book published in 2011 by a biblical scholar called John Anderson entitled, Jacob and the Divine Trickster. Anderson illuminates the tension between Jacob as trickster and as God’s favourite. He argues for a theology of deception, with the Bible viewing God as comprising surprisingly dynamic, subversive and unsettling elements. Jacob ultimately wins out – all’s well that end’s well – ultimately only because of God’s support and active collusion with him. His mother, Rebecca, is guided by God to ensure that Jacob steals his father’s blessing and not her other son, Esau. And in this episode, Laban is stayed by God’s warning: don’t try it on with him, punk, or there will be trouble. Part of Jacob’s blessing is that God is on his side. Actually, such an idea of God is nothing new. In 2 Samuel 22.27, King David describes God as “with the pure, acting with purity, and with the perverse you are wily.” The rabbis in the Talmud ask if chicanery is permissible to someone who is righteous, and the answer seems to be: one can be both righteous and tricky, even deceitful. In tractate Megillot 13b, they describe Jacob’s proposal to Rachel: “Will you marry me?” he asks. “Yes”, she replies, “But my father is a trickster and he will outwit you. You will not be able to deal with him.” And Jacob replied: “I am his brother in trickery” (Ahiv ana be rama’ut). As Ryan has told us, two wrongs do not make a right, but when dealing with a slippery fish it may help to be a little greasy oneself.
Ryan – a bar mitzvah is said to be an education that sets you up for life. So I am not sure which lessons you should take from this as you go about your daily business. As I started out by saying, sometimes things work out just fine and we shouldn’t worry too much, although naturally most of us do. When the going gets tough, the tough get going – and I think in your Torah portion we see Jacob’s mettle being tested, and he turns out to be spirited and resilient. You have also been tested by the Bar Mitzvah process and similar to Jacob you have emerged with determination and pluck. You have shown yourself what you can achieve, you’ve worked hard, you haven’t shirked any task that has been put before you, indeed you even wanted to do more than you were asked and only your parents in their loving wisdom put a gentle hand on the reins to temper your enthusiasms.
You have also seen what it is to become an adult member of our Jewish community, the United Hebrew Congregation here in Singapore. You understand the importance of building our community, be it through friendship with others in your Hebrew class, or school or basketball team, and we hope that you and others will be shooting for Singapore gold at the next Maccabiah in 2021. We may not be a Los Angeles or New York, but here in Singapore we are building the Jewish infrastructure that will support your generation and future generations. Whether we do it for our children here today, or for the children of people who currently live far away and suspect nothing of where their future careers will take them. Maybe right now they even think that Singapore is in China! Who knows who will be called to this island for their jobs in the future, our job is to build our numbers and the UHC as an institution, so that our island becomes an even more attractive place for future Jewish life. Each bar mitzvah like yours Ryan is a step in this direction. May you blaze a trail in your Jewish teenagerdom and adulthood that takes others with you, and continues the rich traditions of your heritage. Looking at you throughout this process – and even smiling when you read your Torah portion – I’m pretty sure that you know, as I do, that everything’s gonna work out just fine!