Personality psychology has garnered much attention in the last few decades. As part of understanding humanity and the characteristics that influence our decisions, relationships, and life choices, psychologists have developed various theories not only on global and generalizable phenomena but more specifically on the unique aspects of individual personalities that predict these various factors. There are several personality theories and related tests that have gained popularity both in research as well as in culture and media, and many people often seek to understand their personality type and the way their personality has impacted or may impact various aspects of their life and well-being. The Enneagram and the Myer Briggs 16-type personality constructs and assessments are two of the most popular and highly regarded - though rarely used in a clinical context, these personality tests can help individuals understand a lot about themselves, their tendencies in social and professional situations, and their primary drives and motivations.
I’ve gained a reputation for being somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to certain aspects of personality psychology. Perhaps this is because of my tendency to get different results every time I take one of those in vogue personality tests (the implication of character instability is difficult to accept graciously). Or perhaps this stems from the evidence in the literature that a stable, identifiable personality type only really suggests a person’s underlying motivations and traits but is by no means a deterministic, all-encompassing, prophetic description of a person. All individuals are capable of making decisions outside what is typical for their given personality. While personality types and the adjectives we use to describe ourselves can help serve as guideposts for our relationships, goals, and life choices, and while relating to one type or another can be quite validating and increase our self-(and other)-awareness, it is critical not to get boxed in or become limited by a specific category of personality.
There are many places in the Torah where various adjectives are used to describe the nature or tendencies of Biblical personalities. We often speak about the core traits, or Midos, inherent to each of our forbearers, and we likely each relate on some level to several of our Biblical ancestors partially as a result of these descriptions. At the same time, while analysis of the stories of our ancestors tells us much about who they were, sometimes it is in reading about the actions that appear to be largely out of character for them that we gain the most insight into who they truly were and what we can learn from them.
Even before Eisav and Yaakov are born, the Torah describes each of them as diametrically opposed forces. During pregnancy, Rivka experiences the strange sensation of her twins “struggling” in the womb, as the pasuk (25:22) says, “VaYisrotzitzu HaBanim BiKirbah,” and the children struggled within her. Rashi explains according to the Midrash that when Rivka passed a house of idol worship, Eisav kicked as though to escape, and when she passed a place of Torah learning, Yaakov would do the same. When they are born, this stark contrast becomes even more pronounced in the personalities of Yitzchak and Rivka’s twins. The Pasuk (25:27) describes Eisav as “Ish Yodeah Tzayid, Ish Sadeh,” and Yaakov as “Ish Tam, Yoshev Ohalim.” Literally translated, this means that Eisav was a hunter and man of the field, while Yaakov was simple, and dwelled in tents. What does this really tell us about Eisav and Yaakov as people?
Our Mefarshim (25:7) help to clarify matters. Rashi, based on Breishis Raba 63:10, explains that the term “yodeah tzayid,” one who knows how to trap, refers not only to Eisav’s prowess as a cunning hunter but also to his manipulative deception of his father Yitzchak. In an attempt to gain Yitzchak’s favor and trust, Eisav used to ask him questions about Maasros, to make Yitzchak think that he was being particularly careful with these laws. The Ibn Ezra further emphasizes that Eisav was “li’olam malei mirmos,” always full of deception. One primary aspect of Eisav’s personality, it seems, was his tendency to be deceitful.
In direct contrast, the Pasuk describes Yaakov as an “ish tam,” a simple man, who dwelled, as Rashi explains, in the tents of Shem and Eiver, continuously learning Torah. Rashi further explains that the word “tam,” which can be translated both as “simple” as well as “wholesome,” or “perfect,” is a manifestation of Yaakov’s core Midah of Emes, truthfulness. Rashi (25:27) explains, “Kilibo Kein Piv,” his words matched his thoughts and heart – “Mi She’eino Charuf Liramos Karuy Tam,” one who specifically does not use his cleverness to deceive others is called “Tam.” Rather than meaning simpleminded or lacking in intellect or materialism, the word “Tam” in this case illustrates Yaakov’s honest and straightforward personality.
This is all well and good, of course, until we delve just a bit deeper into Yaakov and Eisav’s story.
Strangely, Yaakov’s behavior throughout this Parsha seems to completely defy the above descriptions of his personality. In fact, from selling the Bechorah to Eisav in his moment of hunger-driven weakness to dressing up and purposely, intentionally deceiving his father Yitzchak in order to receive the blessing of the firstborn, Yaakov seems to behave in a more deceitful and cunning manner than Eisav himself!
Yet, the enormity of Yaakov’s Midah of Tam, simplicity, and Emes, truth, is, in fact, in his ability to step outside the confines of his essence, to defy, to a degree, his core personality, to do what was needed and what was demanded of him through Divine providence. It cannot have been easy or natural for Yaakov to follow Rivka’s instructions and purposely set out to trick his father. This was virulently against Yaakov’s nature as a man of simple truth!
Rivka clearly understood this about her son. In instructing Yaakov regarding receiving Eisav’s Bracha, Rivka tells him (27:6) that Yitzchak said, “Va’Avarchecha Lifnei Hashem,” and I will bless you before Hashem, even though Yitzchak did not say these words. The Malbim notes that Rivka does this because she wants to emphasize to Yaakov that it is not really Eisav’s bracha that Yaakov is “stealing;” whatever Yitzchak’s intent, the fulfillment of the blessings will depend entirely on Ratzon Hashem. If God wanted Yaakov to have the blessing, then it would be that way, and Rivka only knew about the brachos through Ruach HaKodesh, because Yaakov was meant to get the Bracha from Yitzchak in this manner. This was in fact God’s will: not only should Yaakov get the Bracha, but he should do so in a way that defied his personality, that overcame his nature, that called upon him to step out of who he knew himself to be, in order to achieve what he needed to fulfill all that he and his offspring would become.
In reality, this is actually what being an “Ish Tam” means. As we discussed with regard to Noach, Temimus, wholesomeness, is the ability to do what the moment calls for. The most authentic kind of truth is that which we come to accept even if it flies in the face of what we know and/or have known. For Yaakov, his perfect simplicity was in being able to accept that despite his honest nature, the moment called for a shift away from his personality to embrace traits more characteristic of his brother, i.e. deception and trickery. Only through stepping outside of his own personality and attempting to embody another’s was Yaakov able to fulfill his mother’s directive – and God’s will.
Self-knowledge, awareness of our core traits, our primary motivations, our tendencies and likes and dislikes, provides us with invaluable data. This information has the power to transform us from potential beings to actualized achievers. By accessing our unique abilities, by harnessing our strengths and weaknesses, by channeling our personalities into our work and relationships, there is so much we can accomplish and our capacity to navigate the ins and outs of life and its intricacies is enhanced. And, at the same time, we must be wary of becoming locked in to a way of being or thinking, of developing a complacency or determinism about ourselves and our personalities that leaves little or no room for further growth, or the ability to make new and different choices each day. Like Yaakov, we may have core aspects of our nature that define us and influence many of our decisions, but it is critical to be able to go beyond – even directly against! – our personality and nature in order to do what is asked of us, what is needed from us, in any given moment.
This week, consider one area in which you may be handcuffing or handicapping yourself by leaning too heavily on the defined boundaries of your personality. In what ways can you step beyond your natural instincts, tendencies, and limitations to achieve more spiritually, personally, or professionally? Find a way to go against your nature to do what is asked of you; even if it stretches the confines of your personality type, it may just be the key to a world of blessing.