The ‘Good’ Deception

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) meets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Illustrative. Photo Courtesy of UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

The world received an unexpected headline last week when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decided to give a reportedly public speech in the capital of Damascus and presented his own peace plan for the bloody Syrian civil war. Assad, whose whereabouts had come into doubt as the conflict has become more intense, laid out a plan of mutual ceasefires and a new constitution that was not so far removed from the approach the US and the United Nations have espoused. But it was the devilish details that made the plan a farce, with the US rejecting it outright.

Assad conveniently left out what was to be done with his position of power, which the dictator has used to repress his people for more than a decade. He also left open the door to renewed regime violence, ostensibly to defend the populace he’s actually slaughtering. The US saw right through his “good” plan and made a decision we all must face every day.

The greatest threat to the “best,” it is said, is the “good.” Often in life we are not called to choose between evil and justice, between foolishness and wisdom, but between what appears fine or even good and what is truly the best.

In fact, the more our lives begin to line up with G-d’s standard of righteousness, the more our moral decisions seem to focus on this good versus best quandary.

The patriarch Jacob understood this conflict. In Genesis we read of his dramatic reconciliation with his brother Esau, decades after Esau had sworn to kill him in revenge for taking the family blessing.

Jacob sends a massive gift and repeatedly bows before Esau in an effort to appease him, clearly fearing the vengeful wrath has not yet subsided. Yet Esau embraces Jacob and the two men weep together.

Surely everything’s ok, right? Well, no.

Oddly enough, Jacob quickly takes leave of Esau and refuses his request to travel together or leave his men as guards en route to Esau’s home in the neighboring country. Why would Jacob so suddenly end a reunion that had been so successful?

Because Jacob saw the difference between a temporary good and the long-term best. Knowing his brother was impetuous and emotional, Jacob wisely decides not to prolong their time together lest Esau change his mind and turn violent again. We find Jacob’s wisdom to be valid later as Esau’s descendants become some of Israel’s most hateful neighbors.

In fact, Jewish tradition holds that Esau’s descendants become Israel’s archenemies. Amalek, a descendant of Esau, is believed to be the father of the Amalekites, a violent and aggressive people that are something of a long-term super villain in the Bible.

How did Jacob know? Well, for one thing, he knew Esau. Second, Esau’s sudden suggestion to leave the same day they met certainly had to seem odd—Jacob has a large company that has been traveling for weeks, a break for a meal or night over would make more sense.

Third, rather than return to their father Isaac, Esau invites Jacob to his home in Edom, effectively putting Jacob in enemy territory where he had no allies or friends. Like Assad, Esau made friendly gestures that masked nasty intentions.

Jacob, ultimately, saw through the “good” exterior and realized that a short-term family reunion was not worth the risk of the more permanent family funeral.

What methods can we gather from this approach when determining best from good? First, we should keep past experience in mind when making decisions about the future. Jacob knew Esau well, just as the West has gotten to know Assad.

Ironically, this does not mean that we expect the worst from people all the time or that we consistently “guard ourselves” from getting hurt again by holding grudges. In fact, with regards to people who have hurt our feelings or done us wrong, the best is really to forgive and forget the past.

But if the person wants to kill you, like Esau, or if its in regards to circumstantial decisions—such as how late to stay up on a work-night or how much money to spend on a vacation—remembering the good and bad of the past is very helpful to determining the best. In other words, don’t just assume it will go differently “this time.”

Second, and this is crucial, the best is always the long-term best. The “good” typically is a short-term benefit. So for fathers who are balancing work and family, the long-term significance of investing in one’s children far outweighs whatever short-term good comes from staying those extra hours at the office to earn another handful of dollars. Money comes and goes far too easily, but a child’s life happens only once.

Similarly, when deciding on issues of moral direction or wisdom for a family setting, the long-term best is crucial. There are times when that decision will be uncomfortable for others, such as choosing to discipline a child or adjusting down a budget to reflect actual finances, but the long-term benefit is the key.

Like Esau and Assad, there are many things that look good to us on the surface. Our responsibility is to remember how these things have gone in the past and always incline our hearts towards a long-term view rather than a short-term benefit.

Don’t be deceived by a wolf in a “good” costume or even by a “good” sheep—choose the best.

(By Joshua Spurlock,, January 18, 2013)