I want to look at the haftorah this week, which starts with an obvious connection to the parasha:
We have talked about הושע on שבת שובה (this haftorah overlaps with that one). He was a נביא in the time of חזקיהו, when the Northern kingdom of Israel was exiled by Sargon, king of Assyria, and the Southern kingdom of Judah was besieged by his successor Sennacherib, but miraculously saved. He specifically was a נביא of the kingdom of Israel, predicting its downfall after the exile of the גלעד, the Eastern side of the Jordan.
While the first line of the haftorah obviously connects to the parasha, it’s not clear how it relates to the rest of the haftorah (or the message of הושע in general). Looking at the context doesn’t help; it’s a rebuke of Israel, how they started with such great potential and threw it away:
The line about וישר אל מלאך ויכל comes from next week’s parasha:
The Malbim explains that the ויברח יעקב שדה ארם line is Israel's response to the rebuke:
Israel is arguing that cheating and lying are מנהג ישראל; Yaakov cheated to get the ברכות and that started a cycle of consequences that we see in this week’s parasha, and continues on for ever.
And their response to the accusation of idol worship is ובנביא העלה ה׳ את ישראל ממצרים; if ה׳ works through intermediaries then we should serve Him through intermediaries:
The נביא addresses the latter argument:
But he doesn’t address the dishonesty argument. And it’s a real problem. In 2006, David Plotz, a nonreligious Jew, blogged his project to read the Torah straight through (with the Etz Hayim translation; one could do worse).
How do we understand Yaakov in these stories? We associate Yaakov with אמת, absolute truth:
Let’s look at that episode when Yaakov steals the ברכה:
We’ve talked before about the distinction in Biblical Hebrew between פן—”lest“—and אולי—”perhaps“:
Yaakov didn’t want to lie to his father, but felt obligated to. The מפשרים emphasize that Yaakov felt that this was a commandment from G-d:
Rav Kamenetsky that this was specifically a test, a נסיון, for Yaakov, because it went against everything he believed in:
(We dealt with the question of why the Avot needed to be tested in this way in the shiur on David’s test and failure.)
So how does הושע answer Israel’s protest that even Yaakov was dishonest? He points out the difference: Yaakov protested. Moral sophistication means realizing that life isn’t always black and white, that there will be cases when it is necessary to go against one’s moral intuition, but never giving up on that moral intuition. Having to lie once doesn’t mean that lying is fine. Pace David Plotz, Yaakov, after being cheated by Lavan, doesn’t ”trick Laban right back“. He breeds the sheep and selects the spotted and speckled ones exactly according to the agreement. Israel in הושע's time enjoyed the trickery:
And more. We’ve written the first pasuk as ובאונו שרה את אלהים, referring to the same “wrestling with an angel” as the second וישר אל מלאך. But why repeat it?
I would propose that the first is actually שם ה׳ and it should be ובאונו שרה את אלקים. That’s the way Onkelos translates “ישראל”:
שרה את אלקים means Yaakov struggled with G-d. It’s what makes an אב of בני ישראל, to always obey but never lose sight of one’s individuality and conscience. And that is what מלכות ישראל lost and what led to their exile.