Inconsistencies in Our Life Choices
This week’s Torah portion, which discusses dual personalities,
helps us answer a critical question in our lives: Are we
hypocrites when our behavior and our beliefs are inconsistent?
How disconcerting is it when we see everywhere we look
– both at ourselves and at others – one constant:
No one’s actions live up to their belief system. People
profess many high standards. Many wax eloquent about their
Divine, indispensable mission in life. Yet when it comes
to behavior on a day-to-day level, we all fall short of
our own standards.
Does this make us hypocrites? Or just plain insane? As
one friend asked me the other day: “I can’t
believe myself. Here I am dispensing critical advice to
a colleague, and then I go off and make exactly the same
mistake! How is it possible that I know one thing –
and know it with certainty in every fiber of my being –
and when it comes to action, I do the exact opposite? Am
I a charlatan or just neurotic?”
“Welcome to the real world,” I told him. “The world of
dichotomies and paradoxes. With the biggest dichotomy of
all perhaps being the one between our beliefs and our behavior.”
All you have to do is open up the newspaper. Barely a day
passes without another scandal and act of hypocrisy. In
the past few years how many people have fallen who claimed
to be representing “traditional values”? Then
of course you have the critics, decrying the hypocrisy and
depravity of others, while themselves shortly after being
caught in their own web of deception.
A while back there was an article provocatively titled
Many Who Voted For ‘Values’ Still Like Their
Television Sin? The article scathingly observed the transparent
contradiction between the “values” message apparently
sent by a significant percentage of voters and their television
viewing preferences. By and large the most popular TV shows
are “far more likely to keep pumping from the deep
well of murder, mayhem and sexual transgression” than
“morally driven” programming. The article quotes
TV executives, who explain: “We say one thing and
do another. People compartmentalize about their lives and
their entertainment choices.”
The divide between what people accept as proper in public
and what they choose to enjoy in their private lives, is
nothing new in the history of the world or this country,
the article points out. The Pilgrims, for instance, had
deep beliefs and values, as we see from their writings.
“Then you look at the court records and you see all
kinds of” decadent behavior.
So are many Americans just plain old hypocrites, yelling
about values and faith in public, while being anything but
And mind you, this issue is by no means exclusive to America.
I’ll never forget a Friday night dinner debate over
which culture is most hypocritical. A Swiss gentleman shared
with us that he truly despises his country, because, as
he put it, “in Switzerland you sit around a table
with family and friends. Everyone is smiling and oh so polite.
Yet beneath the surface the very same people are engaged
in betrayal and all sorts of illicit behavior.” An
Englishman popped up and begged to differ. “You’ve
never been to England. I don’t think there is a more
hypocritical country. Ostensibly people are so cordial,
but all that smooth veneer masks a profound inner decadence
and corruption.” Not to be outdone, a woman from France
chuckled and said: “We clearly have the monopoly on
duplicity. Many people like to believe that France is the
source of chic. Let me tell you, France is the original
and biggest importer of hypocrisy.”
Well, the debate raged on all night for the claim of first
prize in hypocrisy. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was
just so amusing. I guess, everyone who experiences hypocrisy
thinks that his version is the worst. Too bad, we didn’t
have fair representation of other nationalities staking
their claim on who is the most hypocritical of them all.
But what exactly is hypocrisy?
I submit that it is yet another misused-turned-cliche word
that really has no meaning.
Let’s take, for argument sake, a person you know who is
unarguably virtuous. He has demonstrated in the past that
he is a giving and generous person, who has a natural –
and nurtured – sensitivity and love for others. One day
we witness him behaving uncharacteristically cruel. Would
you say that all his natural virtue is in reality really
one big hypocrisy, or that his cruel behavior is the hypocritical
Webster defines hypocrisy, as “feigning to be what
one is not.” But to define “what one is not”
we must first define “what one is.”
Who are we? Are we good people or selfish ones? Are we
ruthless warriors or gentle creatures; sharks or lambs?
Are we driven primarily by the relentless “survival
of the fittest,” narcissistic and selfish, or by our
As usual, when you look closely the Bible provides us with
ancient yet highly contemporary insight into a dissonance
that has been plaguing mankind from the beginning of time.
In this week’s portion the twin brother, Esau and Jacob,
finally and dramatically encounter each other after 22 years
of profound hostility.
The brothers are ready to go to war. Indeed, Jacob has
a preview of what’s coming with his all-night wrestle
with Esau’s angel. Instead, when they finally meet,
Esau and Jacob embrace.
“Esau ran toward him [Jacob], embraced him, fell upon his
neck, and kissed him. And they wept.” Two opinions are posited
whether Esau “kissed” his brother with a “full heart or
“not with a full heart.” Rashi cites both opinions, explaining
that the dots above the word “and he kissed him” denote
that this kiss was fraught with deeper implications.
Esau was just about to kill Jacob for stealing his blessings.
22 years later, Esau was mobilized to battle Jacob, and
Jacob was ready for the worst. One has to be skeptical of
Esau’s sudden turnaround and his loving embrace of
Was Esau a hypocrite? Did he love or hate his brother?
Is Esau a man of war or a loving brother? A killer or lover?
Did he embrace his brother for pure or ulterior reasons?
And what about Jacob, did he love his brother, or was he
also driven by ulterior motives?
Esau’s duality is not exclusive to him. We also find the
dual nature of Jacob, as reflected in his two names, Jacob
and Israel. Jacob (Yaakov) means “at the heel,” named after
Jacob was born grasping the heel of his elder twin, Esau.
Later, when Jacob disguised himself as Esau to receive the
blessings that Isaac intended to give the elder brother,
Esau proclaimed: “No wonder he is called Jacob (“cunning”)!
Twice he has deceived me: he has taken my birthright, and
now he has taken my blessings.”
Israel, on the other hand, is the name given to Jacob in
this week’s portion after he “has struggled
with the divine and with men, and has prevailed.”
So, who is the true Jacob? And who is the true Esau?
This question takes on much larger proportions. Jacob and
Esau represent the two forces of spirit and matter (see
Big Confrontation - Jacob & Esau Meet). Their
struggle is our struggle between the secular and the sacred,
between faith and modern culture.
Shall ever the twain meet? The answer is an unequivocal
and resolute yes. The struggle would ensue for many years
– that, after all, is the purpose of existence, to
refine, sublimate and make the material world home for the
So who are we: good people or selfish ones, warriors or
lovers? The answer, my friends, is that we are both and
neither. We have both a warrior-like Esau and a scholar-like
Jacob within our psyches. Indeed Esau and Jacob themselves
have both personalities. Jacob has the “Jacob”
and “Israel” dimensions; Esau is both a warrior
and a son of Isaac and Rebecca. He is Jacob’s twin
These two forces are in perpetual battle. An inherent tension
exists between matter and spirit, as they collide. Yet,
ultimately they can and will be integrated.
Did the two brothers Jacob and Esau really love or hate
each other? The answer is complex. On one hand matter and
spirit are at each other’s throats. On the other,
they truly are “twin” forces that ultimately
will unite and completely embrace each other in a healthy,
From the perspective of the tension, it may sometime appear
hypocritical to act virtuously and pursue higher standards
while succumbing to our lowest common denominator. But from
the perspective of our true selves, it is not hypocrisy
at all: It is the desperate attempt to align our inner selves
with our outer behavior.
It all comes down to this: Hypocrisy depends on what we
believe lies at the essence of a human being. If we are
truly beasts, then it would seem hypocritical if we behaved
like men. If we are Divine, then we are hypocritical when
we behave like beasts.
Two short stories that demonstrate this point:
A complaint was brought to the Alter Rebbe against his
chassidim: "They prolong their prayers and are careful
with their performance of the mitzvos, but their efforts
are superficial and they do not truly uphold that level
of piety!" The Alter Rebbe replied: "Is it really
so; is it really so? If it is, then they are deserving of
the verdict of the mishnah (end of Peah 8: 9): 'One who
does not limp and is not blind, yet makes out as if he is,
will not die until he becomes one of them!!' Since they
act like chassidim, and act with love and fear of G-d through
meditation and prolonged prayer, then surely they will not
leave this world until it is truly so!"
Among the chassidim of the Tzemach Tzedek was a businessman
whose dealings took him to the business centers of the large
cities of Russia as well as to several foreign capitals.
As time went by, he became increasingly uncomfortable in
these environments with his long black coat and chassidic
hat. Gradually, he adopted a more secular mode of dress
on his business trips. Of course, he continued to travel
to his Rebbe in traditional chassidic garb.
Then, one day, he appeared before his Rebbe in his businessman's
attire. "Rebbe," he announced, "I've decided
to put an end to my hypocritical behavior. This is how I
dress on all my travels, so why delude myself and others
with my chassidic clothes?
"Reb Yankel," said the Rebbe, "do you
think that I was not aware that you dress differently in
Leipzig and Paris than you do here before me? But I thought
that here you showed us your true self, and there you were
Ask yourself: How do you look at yourself and at others?
If you see them as Divine creatures, then no act of virtue
– no matter how tainted it is by ulterior motive –
is ever seen as hypocritical. (see Maimonides, Laws of Divorce
end of ch. 2).
Apply this principle to your relationships and they will
be transformed forever. Ask yourself: How do you see your
spouse, your child, your beloved, your friends? A good gardener
is fully confident that the Earth, when nourished and the
weeds are cut away, will produce beautiful flowers. If you
see the people around you as Divine entities – and
expect that of them – you will contribute greatly
to bringing out the “flowers” from among the
How you see or don’t see another person’s true personality,
what we expect or don’t expect of each other, is a major
factor in how that person will respond. If your child behaves
inappropriately and you reinforce it by suggesting that
the child is doing nothing more than living up to the “beast”
in all of us, that may be the ultimate hypocrisy which undermines
the emergence of the child’s beautiful nature. If however,
you convey the message to your child that s/he is a pure
soul, and the “negative” behavior is an aberration, that
becomes a very powerful motivating force for the child to
live up to his/her potential.
The same is true for therapists and clients. A good therapist
is sensitive and never judgmental, but at the same time
will not help “justify” low expectations. Recognizing
the enormous potential and resilience of the human spirit,
the therapist will do everything possible to elicit that
spirit from within the client.
In our continuing journey toward embracing our mission,
this week’s chapter teaches us a vital lesson. Tiferet,
or balance – the domain of Jacob – requires
us to recognize the two struggling forces within us, and
not feel that we are hypocrites in our attempt to access
our virtuous soul.
Instead of seeing hypocrisy in our inconsistencies, we
should be seeing in them our struggle to discover our true
selves – a struggle that inevitably creates a dichotomy
between what you believe and what you do.
Now the challenge is to align the two.
Will the real you stand up?