At Touro Synagogue December 10, 2016
Stealing, Lying, and Cover-ups
by Aaron Ginsburg
It was another quiet weekend in Newport. Several people were away. Fortunately, we had a minyan for the Amidah.
Rabbi Marc Mandel’s sermon covered a wide range of things, including Time magazine, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, honesty in the work place, conflicts of interest, and intellectual property rights.
Parashat Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10 - 32:3, takes place in a world where people cheat, lie, cover-up their deeds, and don’t face up to conflicts of interest. The parsha’s dramatis personae play their roles in a world that is very real, and not much different from today’s world. Our Talmud sages tried to put the best face on things with some half-hearted damage control. As a patriarch, Yaakov got an upgrade! And that’s not much different from the way we handle things today.
Rabbi Mandel began by holding up the cover of Time Magazine. Actually he didn’t, but he should have. It’s always good to have a prop to grab the audience’s attention. The Rabbi used his words effectively,
“Each year Time magazine picks a person of the year. Here’s a trivia question: Does anyone remember last year's person of the year? It was Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany.
This year it was Donald Trump. As Trump transitions into the presidency, many people are wondering how is he going to separate his business interests from being the president?
Will he be able to distinguish between his personal interests and the interests of the country? This question is very relevant to this week's Parsha.
In this week's Parsha, Lavan accuses Yaakov of exactly that-Lavan tells Yaakov, “You were supposed to be working for me, but instead you made your own personal fortune!”
Yaakov is astounded by this accusation-he says, “I worked for you for twenty years-day and night and I barely slept- and now you accuse me of stealing from you?”
And Lavan does not cave in. He tells Yaakov, “Everything you have is mine and you are a thief.”
Radically different ideas about who is right and who is wrong. The Rambam teaches us that we have to live our lives like Yaakov, and he calls Yaakov a Tzadik because he worked so hard for Lavan with complete honesty. Maimonides writes that that’s what the Torah obligates us to do-to work as hard as you can and to be honest at work.
It would appear that there's a lot of stealing going on in these Torah readings. Last week we had the episode of the Blessings and how Yaakov disguised himself. This week, Rachel steals her father’s idols and Yaakov is accused of stealing Laban’s sheep: sometimes it’s not clear if it is stealing or not.
Like today with the internet there are file sharing websites where you can get books and movies-for no money. Is it stealing-it appears to be-but there are those who say, “All I did was download a file that is there for the taking.”
Thomas Jefferson said, “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” That’s actually a Jewish idea.-The passage in Tehilim (Psalm 119, verse 160) says, “רֹאשׁ דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת (The Beginning of G-d’s word is Truth.).” The Talmud, in Kiddushin 31a, asks, “Is only the beginning of G-d’s word truth? What about the end?” And the Talmud says, “Of course, when you see the whole picture then you can see it was true all the way through.” Let us strive for complete truth and honesty, let us try to be like Yaakov Hatzadik in our endeavors.”
And if that fails, may our damage control efforts be successful without causing too much additional damage!