Abraham Lincoln was a transcendently great American president. Yet Steven Spielberg’s recently released film Lincoln depicts him as a practitioner of political chicanery and manipulation. Thus, the movie poses one of the central problems of politics: Must an individual be calculating and deceitful in order to be a great leader? The question has occasioned some insightful commentary by writers like David Brooks, but perhaps the heart of the matter is best illuminated by the portrait of the patriarch Jacob in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlah.
It was the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that transformed the American Civil War from a military to a moral struggle by declaring that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,” except as punishment for a crime, “shall exist within the United States.” Among the most compelling scenes in Spielberg’s Lincoln are those portraying the intense wheeling and dealing that Lincoln orchestrated in order to secure the amendment’s passage in Congress. The tactics we see him using are dubious enough to raise serious questions about his moral character.
Yet, Brooks calls Lincoln a “hero” for having not merely “high moral vision” but the “courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.” He paints Lincoln as that rare leader, like George Washington or Winston Churchill, who understands that great public good can be accomplished only through the political process and accepts the challenge of engaging in this process while knowing that it will entail a constant struggle to retain an inner moral core.
Indeed, Brooks goes farther, claiming that Lincoln’s wisdom derives “precisely from the fact that he is damaged goods.” That is a strong claim—but no stronger than what might be said of Jacob.
Jacob, too, used cunning to further what is described as a greater good. He persuaded his elder twin Esau to sell Esau’s birthright—their father Isaac’s blessing for his first-born son—in exchange for a pot of stew. When the ailing, blind Isaac was ready to bestow the blessing, Jacob connived with his mother to disguise himself as Esau and cheat—there is no other word for it—Esau out of the blessing. Jacob received the blessing for himself—“let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee”—and secured his leadership of the Jewish people. Was Jacob merely revealing a moral flaw? Was he performing an act of political heroism? Could it have been both?
The internal struggle with just these questions can be read into the otherwise inscrutable story, in Genesis 32-33, of what is often referred to as Jacob’s wrestling with an angel. Jacob, returning home after an absence of years, sent messengers ahead to tell Esau of his arrival; the messengers returned to say that Esau was coming to meet Jacob—with 400 men. That night, the text tells us, Jacob wrestled with an ish (32:26). The word literally means “man,” but the pre-eminent biblical exegete Rashi (1040-1105) identifies Jacob’s opponent as Esau’s guardian angel.
As Moshe Sokolow has suggested in these pages, perhaps Jacob was wrestling, in his vision or dream, with his own guilty doubts about whether his fraudulent acquisition of his father’s blessing was morally justified. The text tells us that during the struggle, Jacob saw “elohim panim el panim” (32:31): he encountered something godly—in the sense of epic, or larger than life—face-to-face. The next day, when Jacob and Esau finally met, Jacob told his brother, “ki al kein ra’iti fanekha kirot penei e-lohim—for I have seen your face as one sees a godly face” (33:10). In both the nighttime meeting with the angel and the daytime meeting with Esau, Jacob saw a “godly face.” And if the ish with whom Jacob struggled bore the face of his twin Esau, perhaps the face Jacob saw and the being with whom he struggled were his own.
In this reading, the demon that Jacob laid to rest in his nighttime struggle was his own moral concern over his having acquired his father’s blessing through subterfuge. As dawn approached, Jacob’s name was changed to “Yisrael,” because “thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (32:29). The text links the new name to the verb sarita—you have become a sar, a “ruler” or “prince” (32:29); but what if we move the dot so that the letter sin becomes shin? In that case, Jacob has acquired his new name because he has become yashar, confident of his moral rectitude and no longer plagued by his doubts.
Yet in the course of subduing his adversary, Jacob suffered an injury to his thigh, which caused him to limp; one may speculate that his leg injury was psychosomatic. There is a price to be paid, even when a great man’s compromise of his own morality has been wise and necessary. Thus, the Torah ends the story of Jacob’s struggle with this addendum: “Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh”—the sciatic nerve—“unto this day,” because this was the injured sinew that caused Jacob’s limp. Moral compromise, even if vindicated, does not leave one unscathed.
This metaphor has found its way into more modern thought. Natan Alterman, who has been described as the “poet of Jewish independence and glorifier of Israel’s army,” wrote after Israel’s War of Independence:
But may this resurgent nation
Limp a bit on its thigh,
Even when the land gives it a new body.
Let there still be noticeable, even on parade,
The blemish that the angel made.
Lincoln, too, was a wrestler—literally and figuratively, like Jacob. And in the scars left by Lincoln’s compromises, in his “limp,” we see the true measure of greatness.
Dr. Judy Sokolow is the Director of Student Educational Programming at the RAMAZ Middle School.