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Leadership Flaws

by Rabbi James Prosnit – 5778

I wonder – when it comes down to it – how important is character in the people we support to lead us. Do we forgive character flaws, even severe ones, if we perceive that the flawed individual actually is good for interests that we hold to be important?  Or is there a tipping point when even acolytes can say that behavior crossed the line and I must distance myself.  My core values are at stake.

And while I could be talking about the headlines — our president; or the evangelical Christian’s support of Judge Moore – or to be non-partisan let’s throw Senators Franken and Menendez into the mix – my real focus this morning is Jacob.

Our familiar and wonderful sidra pits Jacob, the future name sake and leader of our people against his brother Esau.  Jacob is the home body who prevails by his wits and wiliness. In the beginning of our portion he seems to take advantage of his brother, fresh in from an unsuccessful hunt, demanding the first born birthright before giving some stew to  his famished brother and later in the portion deceiving his elderly, blind father to receive the all-important death bed blessing that should by all rights have gone to Esau.

Our sense of fair play has a difficult time with this story.  The inheritance of the Jewish people, the chain of the Jewish generations that we talk about so proudly moves through this charlatan Jacob.  His name is Yaacov, a perfect English pun meaning heal; but in Hebrew coveys supplanter or a cheat. How can blessing and our adulation come to this man?  Furthermore, if we look at the story Esau is actually a pretty poignant figure.  He is gallant throughout.  At the end of this week’s portion he tearfully begs his father for a second blessing and in a couple of weeks we will see him embrace and forgive Jacob for what he did – a model of reconciliation.

But centuries of Torah commentaries don’t see it that way. They have tried to prop up the reputation of Jacob and lambast Esau.  Jacob the good! – Esau the wicked! 

A favorite midrash –why was Rebekah’s pregnancy so difficult?  Each time he passed a gambling hall/church/mosque Esau fought to get out of her womb and be born.  Each time she passed a synagogue or Jewish house of study Jacob tried to get out!!!

And in another great stretch – the commentators suggest that Jacob didn’t lie to Isaac. The text reads “Isaac asked which of my sons are you and Jacob said I am Esau your first born.” But no, the commentary says, read it with a period, “Which of my sons are you? I am. Esau is your first born.” 

So what did Esau do that piqued the ire of the rabbis.

Some say he sold his birthright for a quick fix – he wasn’t starving to death — he was simply hungry.  Others say he married out. He married a Hittite woman and that vexed Rebekah and Isaac too.   Others as Jacob was the ancestor of the Israelites, Esau was the ancestor of the Romans.  Esau – the red Edom; became the name the rabbis called Rome.

 But most feel he just wasn’t up to the task of leadership.

He was a hunter and Jews prefer scholars.  Another midrash – while Esau was out in the field, Jacob was home with his books.  Esau was simple minded and gullible.  To be a leader one needs wits and smarts.

Character may be important but savvy leadership that can propel what I stand for forward is what we most want in our leadership. 

And it may well be true—from Abraham, to Jacob; from Moses to King David from Rabin to Netanyahu – we have more often than not overlooked the flaws and chosen the one who was perceived as most aligned with our concerns for group survival.  Sometimes our tribalism – dare I use the word trumps our inherent values. 

A problem with the state of things today is that our politics have become tribal too – and the behaviors of our leaders are either beyond the pale if they are in the other party or things we can live with if they are within our own.

I would, however, suggest that in the end, the message of our text is – that character does matter.   For Jacob what goes around comes around.  He keeps his blessing, but his life will be fraught with difficulty.  He is forced to run away, but himself is deceived by his uncle who tricks him to marry the wrong woman.  He’ll have to work for an additional seven years to marry the one he loves and his children will deceive him too in telling him that his favorite son has been killed by beasts.  He will die in Egypt a stranger in a strange land.

Jacob got the blessing, but Esau may have had an easier life.  I will not predict how the future will play out for our political leaders.  I just know that for better or worse and while it may be painful to say- -there are times I have to acknowledge that purity and virtue are not the only things I look for in those who lead.