The Torah in Parashat Toldot tells the famous story of Rivka’s scheme to have Yaakov receive the blessing which Yitzchak wished to confer upon their older son, Eisav. Rivka instructed Yaakov to come before Yitzchak pretending to be Eisav, so that he would receive the blessing. Yaakov initially refused, worrying that if Yitzchak realized that he was Yaakov, and was trying to deceive him, “I will be like a fraudster in his eyes,” in which case he would receive a curse, instead of a blessing (27:12). Rivka insisted, however, and Yaakov had no choice but to comply.
The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (92a) connects Yaakov’s concern of being exposed as a “metatei’a” (“fraudster”) with a verse in Sefer Yirmiyahu (10:15) in which the prophet describes idols as “ma’aseh ta’atuim” (“the work of mockery”). Based on this association between Yaakov’s charade and idol-worship, the Gemara comments that “ha-machalif be-diburo” – one who speaks deceptively – is considered as though he has worshipped idols. The fact the same unusual root is used in reference to both Yaakov’s deception of his father (“metatei’a”) and idol-worship (“ta’atuim”) demonstrates that deception is as severe as idolatry.
On one level, of course, the Gemara here seeks to emphasize the severity of dishonesty, and to dispel the all-too-common misconception that the Torah treats the betrayal of God more severely than the betrayal of one’s fellowman. The Gemara establishes clearly and unequivocally that lying and deceiving is no less grievous a breach of the Torah’s values than worshipping a foreign deity.
Additionally, the Gemara perhaps teaches that at least in many instances, deception and dishonesty reflect a lack of faith. If a person feels he must deceive others to obtain what he wants, then he does not sufficiently believe in God’s unlimited ability to provide for and assist all people, such that he finds it necessary to resort to unethical means to fulfill his wishes. And thus this individual resembles an idolater, who denies the existence of a single, omnipotent God.
There might also be another explanation of the Gemara’s comparison between Yaakov’s deception and idolatry. Yaakov’s charade represents not only dishonesty, but also the feeling we sometimes we have that we need to “disguise” as somebody else in order to succeed and achieve. Just as Yaakov, sadly, needed to pretend to be Eisav in order to receive Yitzchak’s blessing, we, too, sometimes feel the need to imitate others in our pursuit of success and happiness. Rav Tzadok Ha-kohen of Lublin famously taught, “Just as a person must believe in God, may He be blessed, so must he then believe in himself…” We must believe in our own unique potential, that we are each, individually, precious and capable of greatness. If we think we need to copy others, to be somebody else, to “disguise” our true essence, then we express a lack of faith in ourselves, in our uniqueness, in our singular capabilities and talents. Our belief in God must include a belief in the special divine spark within us, and so denying the existence of that unique spark, and believing we need to be somebody else, is akin to idol-worship – denying the existence of a singular God, and worshipping a fake image. The Gemara here perhaps teaches us that just as we must firmly believe in the Almighty, we must firmly acknowledge His belief in each and every one of us, and trust in our ability to serve Him as we are, without having to try to become somebody else.