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“This is how the moral life is. We learn by making mistakes. We live life forwards, but we understand it only looking back. Only then do we see the wrong turns we inadvertently made. This discovery is sometimes our greatest moment of moral truth.” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (Jerusalem: Koren-Maggid Books, 2016)
This statement came in Rabbi Sacks’s summation of the story in Genesis in which Jacob deceives his father Isaac and takes the blessing intended for his brother Esau. Neither Jacob, nor his mother Rebecca, come off very well in this episode. Jacob is forced to depart to live many years among his mother’s family, where he is in turn deceived.
In all the times I read this complicated tale, I never once picked up on something pointed out by Rabbi Sacks — that the deception was entirely unnecessary. Jacob, in fact, received two blessings, one regarding his inheritance as Isaac’s son; and, just before he departs, the “covenant blessing” given by God to Abraham: that he will produce heirs and inherit the land of Israel. In the end, Jacob returned Esau’s blessing to him (see Gen. 33:11) and the brothers reconciled.
Think of the many times in life we think something is one way, yet it turns out to be another, leading to sorrow or joy, repentence or relief. It is only with experience that we can take a larger perspective, or learn patience.
Thus the human condition, and the wisdom to be found in the Bible in its acute observation of human foibles.