"Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark, not telling him that he was fleeing, and fled with all that he had." (Genesis 31:20)
As the Torah presents this situation, Jacob needed to deceive Laban because his experience with Laban indicated that Laban was not an honest man. Laban had, after all, deceived Jacob in giving him Leah as his wife instead of Rachel, and then, as Jacob says later to Laban, "You changed my wages time and again" (Genesis 31:41). Furthermore, Laban had no sense of justice, for "Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and He gave judgment last night" (Genesis 31:42). As Jacob presents the situation, he treated Laban as Laban had treated him, deception for deception, tit for tat, what the Rabbis will later describe approvingly as midah k’neged midah, measure for measure, asserting that God Himself metes out justice in that way (B. Sanhedrin 90a and often in Midrash Rabbah) and the Torah says that we should as well, "Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise" (Exodus 21:24-25).
And yet, we are – or should be – at least a little disturbed by Jacob’s actions here. As the English saying has it, "Do two wrongs make a right?" And surely what Jacob did here is wrong on at least two counts. First, the Torah itself demands "Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against your countryman" (Leviticus 19:18). Jacob is clearly taking vengeance here, and even though it may seem justified, given Laban’s past behavior, and even a warranted act of self-defense, it is not what we Jews are supposed to do.
Furthermore, deceiving someone else is also wrong. Thus the Torah itself demands, "Keep far from a lie" (Exodus 23:7), and "You shall not defraud your fellow" (Leviticus 19:13). The Rabbis later extend these commandments, the first in the context of court procedures and the second in the context of business, to how we speak to one another and interact with each other. When the Torah, in the passage cited at the beginning of this commentary, talks of keeping Laban in the dark, as the new Jewish Publication Society translation has it, the actual Hebrew words are that "Jacob stole Laban’s heart." In the Torah, the heart is the seat of thought, not the seat of emotions, as it is in modern English usage. (The kidneys are the seat of emotions in the Bible.) As a result, it is not surprising that the Rabbis later describe deception by a related phrase, g’naivat da’at, stealing the mind of another. Maimonides later codifies the Talmud’s discussion of such deception as follows:
It is forbidden for a person to conduct himself with smooth speech and deception, and he should not be [saying] one thing with his mouth and [thinking] another in his heart, but rather his inside should be like his outside. And it is forbidden to steal the mind of people, even of a non-Jew. How so? He should not sell a non-Jew non-kosher meat claiming that it is kosher…and he should not urge his friend to eat at his home when he knows that he cannot eat [there then]… (M.T. Laws of Ethics [De’ot] 2:6)
Jacob, of course, found himself in a hostile environment, and in such environments, including defensive wars and other forms of self-defense, deception may be warranted to attain the larger goal of self-preservation. The same applies to competitive sports, where hiding the ball and other such deceptive maneuvers are accepted practice and therefore allowed in that specific context. The Rabbis recognized that maintaining a person’s dignity is also a critical value (e.g., B. Berakhot 19b), so in some cases when we think negatively about a person but nobody needs to know that for a practical reason, we should either remain silent about our opinion or guild the lily a bit.
The general Jewish requirement, though, is that we be honest in both our dealings with each other and in how we speak to and about each other. There are exceptions to this rule, including those listed above, but in general the duty of honesty applies. This involves not only the obligation to refrain from lying to one another, but also the duty to refrain from deceiving one another. May we reach the ideal that the Jewish tradition sets up for us – that what we say is also what we think, and that what we do does not intentionally deceive anyone.
For more about the Jewish ethics of speech, see Elliot N. Dorff, The Way Into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World), Chapter Four. For more on the Jewish ethics of war, see Elliot N. Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics, Chapter Seven.
This commentary is in memory of my beloved father, Sol Dorff, Shelomo ben Hayyim v’Hannah, whose Bar Mitzvah parashah was Vayetzei, which by chance was also what we were reading the week that he died 29 years ago.