Vayishlach: Hypocrisy

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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 in private?

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 one?

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 Divine dimension?

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 Jacob.

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. 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 Divine.

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 brother.

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, non-biased, unity.

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 the hypocrite….”

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 weeds.

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?

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11 years ago

Dear simon jacobson., thank you for your torah input which always comes
right in time. I did think both i am meshigge and neurotic. And after
studying the book of the fathers,the last three weeks parsche, and
last but not least tanya, one has to be convinced that there is a
good&bad. Somebody who does bad,evil,unmodest,etc(ch v sh) is just
bad,etc. I do realize that your your intention,as your message from a
human perspective is both well meant as the intermediary,but how do
you base this in torah and mizwot? All life strive to the right
direction? What is right? And are we all,is nobody or who is? If this
is the case,or a bad one one who does not regrett-do tschuwah? Neither
my questions nor my thoughts are ordered,thus,the discourse about
those central issues should be continued… Thanks so much,all the
best,good shabbos!