What kind of role models are these!

February 21st, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 33 comments

My wife and I love listening to your podcast.

I have a question that no Rabbi has been able to answer to my satisfaction. (It could be that they have answered the question accurately but it never resonated with me.)

It’s about Jacob and his children. Jacob is revered by us and his children were given the privilege of having tribes named after them. What bothers me is that these were not nice children. Judah had a terrible mean streak and was known to hang out with women of ill repute. His brothers sold a brother into slavery. They lied to their parents, they wiped out entire cities for revenge. (If I was Jacob’s neighbor my kids would have been under strict instructions to avoid them at all cost!)

Where does the reverence for Jacob’s children come from and why do rabbis insist on calling them righteous?


Dear Cliff,

We’re not sure we can answer this question to your satisfaction, but we are going to try and contribute perspective which we hope you will appreciate.

Recently, a book about a complicated woman, Dr. Anne Spoerry was published.  (In Full Flight by John Heminway)  She fought the Nazis while part of the French Resistance. She was betrayed and sent to a concentration camp where she collaborated with the Nazis in monstrous crimes against other captives.  To escape war crime prosecution, she fled to Kenya and spent the rest of her life saving the lives of thousands of Africans.

To the Africans whose lives she improved and saved while working devotedly on that continent she is a heroine. The concentration camp internees who saw her as a sadistic torturer viewed her very differently. A snapshot of her work for the Resistance before she was sent to a concentration camp would reveal another aspect of her personality. We haven’t read the book yet, but we surmise that Dr. Spoerry was an incredibly powerful and complex woman. We may never know the truth about her feelings, motivations and even her actions but her life does serve as a reminder that God created humans as amazingly complicated beings.

What does this have to do with Jacob’s sons? The Torah consistently presents complex pictures of human beings. It is not a history book, but a guide to life. If the people in it were one-dimensional saints or sinners it would not be useful to us because that is not how any of us really are. The Torah teaches that the greater a person is, the greater is his capacity both for good and for evil. In fact, ancient Jewish wisdom, based on the following verse, teaches that anyone who is great enough to accomplish exceptional things will, by definition, do some wrong things as well.   “There is no righteous man on earth who does only good and never sins at all.”  (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

Jacob’s sons were establishing a movement that, to our day, exerts tremendous influence. They were powerful people given a powerful heritage. We disagree that Judah wasn’t a nice person. He failed to live up to his own standards and picked himself up and tried again. He candidly acknowledged his errors and demonstrated remarkable courage with Joseph in Egypt. In doing so he made it easier for the rest of us to follow suit.

It’s also worth remembering that Jacob and his family didn’t live in a small and wholesome LDS town in Utah or in a church-centric community in Oklahoma.  They lived in a world yet unimpacted by Judeo-Christian values.  Their neighbors behaved barbarically and inflicted cruelty upon one another.  There was no civilized alternative to Jacob’s sons wiping out the men of Shechem.  It wasn’t simply revenge for rape. It was a process of civilizing the world.

None of the other actions you mention such as the brothers selling Joseph or Judah’s visiting a woman he thought to be a prostitute can be fully explained in this response. They’d need more space and time.  Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to treat the narrative like a modern fiction story. There were elements of good and bad in all the actions. Often, the right thing to do inevitably has aspects that are damaging and those who do wrong often have good inside them as well.  Like us, the brothers had to deal with circumstances that are multi-faceted and complicated.

Through their successes and failures they maintained their allegiance to the God of their fathers and to His greater picture. They strove to improve and pass on to their children a call to become greater. They were men of a caliber that we can’t begin to comprehend but the emanations from them still lend strength to us.   These are some of the reasons their descendants were called ‘the Children of Israel” and why the word Jew is proudly derived directly from the name of the fourth son, Judah.

We hope that at least some of what we tell you here resonates. 


Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


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David J says:

For me, the imperfections of the sons of Jacob give me hope that there is hope for me, that I am not unredeemable. I have thought that way for decades.

Susan Lapin says:

“A righteous man falls seven times and gets up…” (Proverbs 24:16). They are certainly role models, though if we picture them on our own level we are not seeing them correctly, David.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear David-
As you say, it is always possible to improve. Every day offers everyone an opportunity to be more than the day before. God never turns away from sincere effort. He smiles more upon a lowly person who makes each day better than a high personage who’s todays look exactly like his yesterdays.

Karen Boswell says:

We, fallible humans, attempting to be God followers, fail ‘perfection’ just as our ancestors did

Our failings are not a disparaging against a Holy God – we fail – He never does

Our ‘will’ or His ‘will’

His will is perfect

Susan Lapin says:

Karen, we humans get into so much trouble thinking that we can institute ‘perfect’ policies and become perfect.

Shira Dourte says:

I have always been encouraged and comforted by the flaws of our patriarchs and matriarchs. That Hashem could work through such imperfect humans gives me so much hope for what he might be able to make of my life.

Susan Lapin says:

Shira, what He and you together can do is amazing.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Have no doubt Shira–
Perfect people who fear ever putting a foot wrong accomplish very little in this world. The adventure of living is fraught with possibilities, potential, and peril. We will all put a foot wrong occasionally unless we remove ourselves from the adventure entirely

Debbie Evans says:

I really enjoyed reading your exclamation by clearly bring to the surface more points that show even deeper motives. I actually agree that many of us are all that you stated. I personally know sometimes the harder I try the behinder I get. Again, I thank you, for sharing and having the courage to be so transparent.

Rebecca Stine says:

Dear Rabbi, Thank you for that answer, I loved it. You explained it so well. God Bless you and your family.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Rebecca:-
Thank you for your kind words and blessings but I must just mention that no answer is ever provided by only me. Occasionally friends address their comments to only one of us because they may not be aware that Mrs Lapin and I work together on each and every answer and it is invariably our combined approach and the guidance from ancient Jewish wisdom for which we both pray, that brings us to the published response together.

Rebecca Stine says:

Dear Rabbi and Susan, Please forgive me for overlooking the fact that both of you answer together. I truley wasn’t aware or thinking in those terms. Im sorry. Thank you for that reminder. I read the articles when time allows, and love your tv program too. I am learning alot from you guys .Love you both, and it wouldn’t be the same without you together. You both are amazing teachers, the way you explain the scriptures is most important to me. I want to know as much I can about God. I always agree with you Susan,especially from a womens perspective .You have a way of putting my thoughts into words.Thank you both for all the great knowledge , inspiration and the great sense of humor you share. You both give so much.It lifts my spirits to watch your program, and I truley appreciate it so much.God Bless you and your family

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Oh don’t worry, Rebecca:-
I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. No apology necessary we assure you. We love working together and occasionally I like reminding people that what they get from us is from both of us.
You are most kind and we both appreciate you and your kind words and blessings.

Susan Lapin says:

No apology necessary, Rebecca, but thank you for your kind words.

James says:

A great answer, Rabbi and Susan! I for one applaud your intellectual objectivity and moral consistency, which we have heard before on the air. For example, on your AJW show you remarked that not even Hitler was thoroughly evil, and the Jewish financiers of Europe were also no angels, doctrines to which a great many American Jews would shut their ears and grimace! Likewise, you teach us that even a saintly man who leans too far out a 20th story window must fall and pay the consequences. Indeed there is both good and bad in all of us, wise and foolish, and that is our bottom line. There exist black and white, certainly, but these absolutes are far outnumbered by infinite shades of grey. And the world in which the ancient Hebrews functioned, thousands of years ago, was barbaric and uncivilized and can hardly be judged through the lens of today’s world. We were not there to experience what I suppose was the unclean tribal barbarism they had to wipe out.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thanks James,
For addressing your kind words to both Susan and me. Not everyone realizes that Susan and I tackle each question and answer together and we collaborate upon them as we do upon everything we do.

Lois Petty says:

Thank you Rabbi Lapin for enlightening response. Also, I want to thank you for an article several weeks ago when you talked about “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne – a book I have in my own library and didn’t know it! Well I read it and was so gripped I couldn’t put it down and even after finishing, I think about it a lot. If you hadn’t mentioned it, I would have missed out on this classic. Also, the language and insights were so accurate, I have trouble reading modern fiction these days. It just doesn’t measure up. Any other classic book recommendations will be gladly received. I love what you write and always find application in my life.
Blessings to you and Susan,
Lois Petty
Westport, CT

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

So happy you revisited The Scarlet Letter, Lois,
The great classics have yet much to teach us–much more than another dog or cat video on YouTube.

Victor says:

Honestly, my heart often resonates the above question…however, the answer by our wonderful Rabbi sounded to my heart as the pure voice of God. Thank you Sir for always teaching us right

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thank you Victor–
Whenever Mrs Lapin and I do not feel our prayers are being answered for the wisdom necessary to answer these questions correctly, we simply postpone the project.

Susan Hire says:

For me, Jacobs sons are like America. Not perfect, both good and bad, but the good outweighs the bad.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Exactly, Susan–
And to add another $0.02 let’s remember that in the language that Jacob and his sons spoke, there is no word for ‘hero’. That’s right, to this day, Israeli kids can’t say “You’re my hero” in Hebrew. The reason is that ‘hero’ implies someone to emulate and there is nobody we’re supposed to be like. We were each created to me us. I am not supposed to try and be Moses. I have to try become all I can be. There is a word for man or woman of courage; like Samson was. But hero? No! And the Bible in no way conceals the humanity of its personalities. We can learn very little from perfect people but we can learn a lot from people with similar weaknesses and appetites to us but who overcome and rise above them.

Renae says:

Well said. But I also think that God set up Jacob and his sons for a greater purpose that they could strive for. He made them a nation united by a heritage, a brotherhood, a patriarch not so they could be perfect and have flawless lives. But to encourage them to remain strong in their heritage – he gave them something greater for them to attain. Neither Abraham, Isaac nor Jacob acted saintly all the time, and yet God made them the pillars of the nation of Israel to this day. In my own life, my father and uncles were known to get drunk and end up in fights or the jail and I’m sure there were folks who were glad they didn’t live next to us. However, I have served God since I was 7 and have pioneered ministries in Christian churches and have poured my life into serving God’s children. There is always a light.

A.J. Hoffman says:

Solomon borrowed from Text for insight. A paraphrase of a proverb, and several of type: A wise man accepts rebuke, but a fool takes no correction. Recall Yakob and Esau.
And so two imperfect peole, yet note wh sets these apart.

Elizabeth says:

The story of Joseph left me puzzled until I learned more from Rabbis Lapin and Fohrman. The sons of Jacob knew their father loved Joseph’s (and Benjamin’s) mother more than theirs and thus Joseph (and Benjamin) more than them as well. And it seems they believed Joseph’s dreams were of his own imagination, not prophetic from the Creator. But after the trials (tests?) with the grain and the life of Benjamin, they saw a connection to their treatment of Joseph. Then Judah’s heart turned to offering his own life for Benjamin’s, both to his father and unwittingly, to the authority of Joseph. Later in the Word, we will see the descendant of Benjamin (Jonathan) willingly give up his authority (signified by the giving of his robe, sword, bow, etc.) to the descendant of Judah (David). What an amazing turnabout.

Judah’s son through Tamar was an ancestor of David, as was the descendant of Rahab the harlot, with both women honored by the mention of their names (thanks Rabbi for showing us this important distinction of having one’s name mentioned). Our Creator knows their (our) hearts, He knows the end from the beginning. His ways are past finding out, pure and true. He alone is awesome.

Thank you Rabbi Lapin and Susan for your insight and guidance. May we grow in wisdom and knowledge so that our end will truly be greater than our beginning – our love for and our trust in our Creator ever greater.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thanks Elizabeth:-
It’s clear that you have learned a great deal about how to read Scripture. Like anything else, there are right ways and wrong ways and you have it down. Seeing long term causes and effects in the Bible accustoms us to seek them in our lives too. So much can thereby be understood. God gives us wisdom.

Sonia says:

Sometimes we tend to limit God by our own ideas of what should be. We probably wouldn’t use Jacob and his family to establish a nation – especially not the chosen nation. We’d keep looking or someone more worthy, better-looking, smarter, more honest and trustworthy. Certainly someone more like our “perfect” selves. But God does not always choose what we think or who we think should be chosen. He can carry out His holy purpose through anyone or anything, whether holy or not. The Scriptures show us many instances of His use of pagan rulers, unbelievers, and other “unsavory” or “unacceptable” people – even animals – to fulfill His will. He is all-powerful, all-knowing. Only God can know who and why He acts as He does. If He wants us to know, He’ll tell us. How many of the “heathen” have given their lives to God after He chose to use them? Just study the Bible.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thanks for writing, Sonia–
Especially your final sentence-“Just study the Bible”. We couldn’t agree more. Perfect people don’t exist. It’s always painful when we first discover our parents are not perfect. But the perfection of our Father in Heaven allows Him to make good use of each of us in spite of our many flaws.

Lisa says:

Bravo! Somehow my failures, shortcomings and errors don’t seem so terrible knowing that God believes in me to get it sorted out somehow.

Susan Lapin says:

Lisa, our lack of belief in ourselves is one of our worst enemies.

Kevin says:

Thank you for your answer Rabbi. I am grateful for your gift of wisdom. I desire perfection, but I know in this life it’s not possible. Reflecting on this discussion of Jacob and his children, I thought of David also. David, a man after God’s own heart, yet an adulterer and murder. In the modern era, I think of Martin Luther King Jr., a known womanizer and adulterer, yet a powerful force for good in the world. I think of myself. An imperfect man, a sinner in need of a loving and redemptive God. I think of all these persons and am grateful to know that Jehovah sees our best and calls us to be our best and forgives our failures. It appears in the Torah that our Father does not define us by our evil deeds when we are trying with our good actions. Isn’t that wonderful! It also teaches me not to look at other’s failure and judge them by their failures. That is the hard part because I desire that leaders and heroes be perfect examples. But alas, they are only human and not the Almighty God.

Teena says:

Dear Rabbi;
Daily listening to you and Susan’s broadcast and reading your Thought Tool; sometimes I spend hours rewinding the DVR and reading the Bible during and afterward. Thank you for being obedient and diligent teaching God’s Word. I hope I’m growing in knowledge and understanding.

I’ve learned from you that Judah was Leah’s fourth and final son where she finally gave up striving to be loved by her husband. She turned to praise God giving Judah a name meaning, ‘Praise God’. This was an act of faith in God.

As a man, Judah was fierce! But he was also fiercely brave stepping forward to ask for Joseph’s forgiveness and admitting to his wrong with Tamar. These are acts of faith in God.

Judah is the type of leader I would always want to follow. As written by the prophet Micah: ‘ And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not in any way least among the leaders of Judah ; For from you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel .’” Matthew 2:6

This prophecy speaks of the Christ Jesus.

I believe God is not so much looking for qualified, perfect, or “good” people, as mentioned, none are [inherently] righteous, as much as He wants people who recognize their wrong and have the heart to turn to truth and do what is right by God. It is in those actions they become righteous. This is having faith in God.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

He’s certainly not looking for ‘perfect’, Teena,
otherwise I’d have no purpose.

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