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The Elements of Style

Or, if you’re going to do it, do it right

Liel Leibovitz
December 12, 2008

Is there anything more delightful than a political scandal? Anything more heady than that mix of money and malarkey, of power and poor judgment? Anything more pleasing than witnessing the grave and graying men and women entrusted with the public good toss aside all propriety and nakedly pursue their own petty interests?

As the epic saga of Illinois’s raunchy governor, Ragin’ Rod Blagojevich, unfurled in all its gruesome glory, chatterers on CNN and elsewhere delightedly bemoaned the governor’s brazenness, decried his corruption, and lamented his actions and their foul effect on the state’s political machine. Schadenfreude, how we love ya’.

But, as is so often the case, the mirthless, mindless media dudes were missing the point. Entirely.

Luckily for us, this week produced at least one political mind astute enough to understand the full extent of the situation, and offer the appropriate lesson: Jacob.

No snickering necessary: after all, a man who had successfully outfoxed a murderous brother, a conniving brother in-law and four wives deserves our ready ear. But in this week’s eventful parasha, Jacob delivers a bit of advice that transcends his usual cunning, a pearl of political wisdom we’d do well to wholeheartedly accept.

As this week’s parasha begins, we find Jake deep in the soup: en route to reunite, finally, with his brother Esau, he learns that the wronged sibling is planning on bringing four hundred of his closest friends along, just to make sure the whole mess of pottage business is thoroughly and properly avenged. Naturally, Jacob is frightened and distressed; nothing out of the ordinary here. No, what makes Jacob the astute genius is what he asks his emissaries to tell his brother before he even learns of the pending posse out to get him: “So shall you say to my master to Esau,” he briefs his men. “Thus said your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban, and I have tarried until now.’”

Lest you worry these words are somewhat too mild to stave off Esau’s murderous rage—an “I’m so, so sorry” or a “please, Esau, don’t hurt me” might’ve hit the spot better—consider the following commentaries.

Reading Jacob’s strange message to his brother, Rashi suggests that “sojourned”—or, in Hebrew, “garti”—has the numerical value of 613, and that what Jacob is really saying, therefore, is that while he had lived with the evil Laban, he did not learn his wicked ways but remained a righteous, law-abiding man.

But, as Chabad rabbi Yossy Goldman astutely observed in a recent column, the Chofetz Chaim—the moniker for Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, one of the brightest rabbinic lights of the previous century—had a different, more radical interpretation.

Jacob, the Chofetz Chaim suggests, is not assuring his brother that he had remained righteous in Laban’s iniquitous house; instead, he is regretting the fact that he hadn’t learned more from his father-in-law.

Say what you will about Laban, but the man knew how to live it up: the daughter-switching, the sheep-stealing, the threats and the crimes and the violence. But here is what Jacob understood that most of our pundits failed to see: when you live with a Laban or a Blagojevich, don’t take the easy path of tsk-tsking your tongue and righteously rejecting their scurrilous ways. Instead, regret that you are not more like them. Not, of course, literally: Jacob is not lamenting his failure to steal sheep or swindle serfs. What he is lamenting, the Chofetz Chaim suggests, is his failure to act in the service of good as enthusiastically, as giddily, and as vigorously as Laban did in the service of evil. I have sojourned with Laban, Jacob sighs, and I learned nothing, nothing I can use in the service of the Lord.

Let that be a lesson to us all. As we gawk at transcripts of Blagojevich’s incredible conversations, as we read the allegations against Jesse Jackson Jr. , let us feel not indignation but admiration. And next time we’re faced with a crisis, let us ask ourselves WWBD: What Would Blagojevich Do? If we could then distill the answer and purify it of perfidy and deceit, all that would be left is a recipe for passionate, energetic and entirely committed public service. God knows we could use some of that.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.