Thursday, November 29, 2007

Va'Yeishev: benefit of the doubt

Parshat Va'Yeishev

In 39:11-18 we are told the story of how the wife of Potiphar tried to seduce Yosef into having an affair with her. he nearly succumbed, but resisted and escaped. She then claimed that he had tried to force himself on her, with strong circumstantial evidence, and Yosef ended up in jail.

Mrs. Potiphar's story was very convincing. There she is holding his clothes saying he had attacked her and when she screamed out he ran away. If you read such a report in the newspaper of amn attempted rape, you would surely have believed the story to be true. Any explanation the alleged rapist would offer would not even be entertained in your mind as possibly being true. You would say he is trying to confuse us to show his innocence and you would lock him away.

Yet we know that despite her elaborate explanation, the truth was really very different. And despite the truth, nobody believed Yosef, nobody even listened to Yosef, and he ended up in jail.

This story shows how important it is to be "dan l'kaf z'chus" - judge people favorably, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Even when Yosef looks 100% guilty, there is really a different explanation that was ignored. So even when someone looks guilty to you, and you inclined to consider him guilty, consider there might be another explanation to the events.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Va'Yishlach: doing what you gotta do (old post)

Parshat Va'Yishlah

post from last year. I thought of the same one again. I still think it is true.

Va'Yishlah: making your mark

Parshat Va'Yishlah

The Torah goes through the children and grandchildren of Esav. In 36:12 it says "And Timna was the pilegesh (concubine) of Elifaz."

Rashi says this shows the greatness of Avraham, because Timna was from a very powerful family yet in order to attach herself to the family of Avraham, she was even willing to make herself into a concubine to Elifaz.

We saw a similar situation by Hagar. She was the daughter of the king of Egypt. She was a princess. Yet because she wanted to attach herself to Avraham and his family, she was willing to become a maidservant, rather than marry the great prospects she would have had otherwise.

Hagar becoming a maidservant is more understandable. She was actually in the house with Avraham. She saw his greatness and wanted to be in that environment.

Timna, however, was attaching herself to Avraham's family by becoming the mistress to Elifaz. He was a rasha, his father Esav was a rasha who spent much of his recent life hoping and trying to kill Yaakov - the one who really continued the path of Avraham.

By hanging out with Elifaz, how exactly is Timna absorbing the environment of Avraham?

It is really despite being with Elifaz and Esav. Even though Esav and Elifaz were evil, they were still the family of Avraham. Some greatness must have worn off onto them and they must have had traits of the family. TYimna was willing to put up with their bad, in order to absorb the good that remained from Avraham.

That is how strong an influence the head of a family, and really anybody, can have. if he leaves his mark on his family, on his community, on his surroundings, that mark can be mighty difficult to get rid of. Even in adverse situations, that influence, that mark, will remain.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Va'Yeitzei: knowing your children and what they are capable of

Parshat Va'Yeitzei

In 31:33-34 We find Lavan coming to look for his stolen idols. He comes to Yaakov's convoy and makes his accusations. Yaakov denies everything and allows Lavan to conduct a search (even with no search warrant).

The passuk describes how Lavan looked inside the tents of Yaakov, Leah and the two maidservants and found no trace of his stolen idols. Lavan then went to Rachel's tent and, the passuk says, Rachel hid them in the camelsack upon which she sat and Lavan conducted a thorough search feeling around the whole tent and did not find them.

By the previous searches it simply says "He went to their tents and did not find them". By Rachel's tent it says, "He went and searched and felt around.."

It seems from the wording that he conducted a much more thorough search in Rachel's tent than he did in the other tents.


Lavan knew who had taken his idols. He knew it was Rachel and not any of the others. He knew because he knew them, he knew Rachel and he knew who was capable of this.

If I get home from work and find an electronic item (for example) taken apart and broken, sure I will ask each kid if he is the one who did it. But in truth I already know which one it was because I know there is only one capable of doing it and I know which one that is.

Lavan looked in the other tents because he had to, because he could not come out and accuse Rachel with no proof. he had to make a cursory search in the other tents, but he did not want to waste too much time and energy because he "knew" they were not there anyway.

So when Lavan searched the other tents, he did what he had to do. But when he got to Rachel's tent he really knew it would be somewhere there, so he conducted a much more thorough search.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Toldos: an epiphany

Parshat Toldos

Yaakov had just stolen the brachos. Esav found out what happened and reacted very harshly. he said he was going to find and kill Yaakov. Rivka decides to send Yaakov away for a while to keep him safe until Esav calms down. Yitzchak calls in Yaakov, blesses him, gives him some instructions about looking fo a wife, and then sends him on his way.

Why did Yitzchak not say a word to Yaakov about what he had just done? Not a word of criticism, not a word looking for an explanation, nothing. Yitzchak acted as if Yaakov had not just deceived him to steal the much desired brachos. Why?

Sometimes things happen that make you realize there are greater forces at play than previously considered.

When this whole story happened, Yitzchak realized it was from heaven and that there must have been reasons why Yaakov was more worthy of the brachos than Esav. There must have been reason why it had to happen and turn out the way it did. He was probably even relieved that he had been saved form making a horrible mistake.

Ytzchak did not need to criticize Yaakov or even ask for an explanation. he now realized that there were greater forces at play.

Toldos: wasn't he in a rush?

Parshat Toldos

In 27:9 Yitzchak sends Esav to go hunt food for him. Yitzchak appears to be on his deathbed, or at least close to it. He is acting very rushed.

If that is so, why did he send Esav out hunting - hunting can take a lot of time. He should have just said go slaughter a couple of my goats from the pen (as Yaakov ended up doing). That is much quicker. And why did Esav go hunting? He should have just grabbed a couple of goats.

If Yitzchak is in such a rush, the whole process could have happened much quicker... So why did he tell Esav to go hunting?

Toldos: what's the rush?

Parshat Toldos

In 27:2-4 Yitzchak tells Esav, "I am old and do not know the day I will die... Bring me food I enjoy so i can bless you before I die."

Yitzchak was not going to die today. As Rashi says, he was 123 years old and was unsure whether he would live until 127 like his mother or 175 like his father. Either way he still had plenty of time left (and he ended up living until 180).

So why did he request the food and deal with the brachos right now as if he was about to die?

Toldos: closing the deal

Parshat Toldos

In 26:27-31 Avimelech and his people come to negotiate with Yitzchak. Yitzchak makes a party for them, they eat and drink. The next day they wake up early and close the deal. Yitzchak sends them home.

Why wait until the next day? They came to do business not to party - they should have negotiated and closed the deal right away. Why wait overnight and have a party first?

On the one hand it shows appropriate behavior. When you have a guest coming to work out a deal, you have to feed them and take care of them. Not just treat it as pure business.

Another point is that it is not good to close the deal too quickly. Let it turn over a bit. Wait overnight and think about things. Do not be too hasty.

Toldos: complacency

Parshat Toldos

In 26:8 it says, "When Yitzhcak had been in Grar a long time..." then the story happens that Avimelech catches Yitzchak and Rivka acting like husband and wife rather than brother and sister...

Putting on an act to try to convince someone of a specific reality is not an easy feat. Much detail needs to be prepared and it would be very easy to slip and and mess up the whole act.

When the act is extended, as it was here, it becomes much more difficult. not only did they have to act as brother and sister for a few days without anyone catching them, but they had to do it for months or years. That is much more difficult. After a while of doing it successfully, you get complacent. You figure you have it down pat and might not pay attention to the small details anymore. That leads to your being outed.

That is what happened here. They were doing a fine job of making Avimelech think they were brother and sister. But once they got stuck there and had to keep up the act for an extended amount of time, that is when they faltered.

Toldos: in denial

Parshat Toldos

In 25:24 the passuk says Rivka gave birth "והנה תומים בבטנה" - behold there were twins in her belly.

We already know that she was carrying twins - Rivka, a few verses earlier went to Shem and Ever to ask what is going on because "The children struggled within her" and the explanation was "שני גיים בבטנך" - two nations are in your belly and will two nations will separate from you, and the older will serve the younger.

So we know already she is carrying twins, so what is the big surprise here, "Behold there were twins!"?

I think that no matter how much preparation a person does when he knows to anticipate difficult news or events, when it actually happens, when it actually comes to fruition, he will be surprised. he really, deep down, hopes that things will turn out better. He really has some internal denial that says maybe, just maybe, it will be normal.

Rivka must have believed what she had heard, but she was in denial. Deep down she hoped her baby would only be one, or at least would not split into 2 distinct nations that would battle each other.

When it actually happened, despite her foreknowledge, she was surprised to a certain extent.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Parshat Hayyei Sarah

In 25:11 the passuk says and after Avraham died, "ויברך אלקים את יצחק בנו" - And Hashem blessed Yitzchak his son.

We already know Yitzchak is Avraham's son. It has told us this many times. Especially now that Avraham has died what is the need to say "his son"?

I think this tells us that Yitzchak continued the ways and methods of Avraham after Avraham's death. Yitzchak showed everybody by his actions that Avraham was the influence in his life. He lived in a way that honored his father.

I know a Rav who very often quotes his father. if you go to him to ask a shailoh, very frequently he begins his answer by saying, "My father would do this.." or "My father held that..". He quotes from his late father even though he is a talmid chacham in his own right. He is continuing the path of his father. He lives and gives honor to his father.

That is Yitzchak. By Yitzchak's life you could see he was the son of Avraham. Even after Avraham's death.

Hayyei Sarah: maintaining peace

Parshat Hayyei Sarah

In 25:8 the passuk tells us, "וימת אברהם בשיבה טובה זקן ושבע" - and Avraham died at an old age, old and satisfied.

This is a very unusual term. Usually it just says "so and so died". Here it tells us he was old and satisfied... Why all the extra descriptions?

Rashi adds that Avraham died happy because he knew Yishmael had done repentance, as was indicated by his giving respect to Yitzchak and letting him go first.

Just because he let Yitzchak goes first means everything is ok? Maybe he is still a murderer or idol worshiper? Maybe he simply came to terms with Yitzchak being the more prominent son?

Nobody wants to see their children fighting with each other and involved in a lifetime bitter feud. People want to see their children get along with each other. Interacting with each other. Respecting each other.

That image alone, of seeing Yishmael abandon his bitterness towards Yitzchak, was enough to give Avraham the comfort, the nachas he always wanted, and that allowed Avraham to die peacefully and satisfied.

Because he finally achieved this level of satisfaction right before his death, that is why the passuk tells us that he died old and satisfied.

This teaches us a lesson how important it is to maintain peace in the family. Avraham's whole life it disturbed him and took away from his peace that his children fought. Only right before he died did he achieve satisfaction because his kids make peace, and that satisfaction is important enough that the Torah mentions it.