parsha of the week

Go slow to judgment, and find good amidst the bad


This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, is replete with life-events that did not go the way those involved in them would have wanted. And yet, positive thinking people try to find silver linings. Sometimes the silver lining is obvious; sometimes it is only discovered years later.

Yaakov anticipated a major confrontation with Eisav, yet it seems to go rather well. Yaakov certainly did not plan to have a fight on the eastern side of the Yabok river. Yet when it ends, and despite his injury, Yaakov is the victor, he receives a blessing, and we have a mitzvah that reminds us of that fight every day — not to eat the “gid hanasheh” (sciatic nerve).

What positives can be gleaned from the following examples of things that do not go his way: the death of his mother, the rape of his daughter, the death of his wife, the strange incident of Reuven and Bilhah?

For Yaakov, maybe Rivkah’s death means that Rivkah’s prophesy or concern will never come true — of losing the “two of you on the same day.” If Rivkah is not around, having died at the age of 133 according to Seder Olam, then she will never lose two people on the same day. This is at least a blessing of longevity for someone! And it’s not like Rivkah’s life was cut short — Yaakov was just away for too long.

What good comes from the rape of Dinah?

For Dinah in the moment, nothing. Her life seems ruined and worthless. But in the bigger picture we witness the eradication of an evil, lying, thieving, rape-defending society. According to some, Dinah was the mother of Osnat, the eventual wife of Yosef, dropped off in Egypt for adoption and raised to ultimately be returned to her family through her royal nuptials. And, of course, Osnat was the mother of Menashe and Ephraim. Not too shabby for her tragic beginnings!

What good comes from the death of Rachel? In the here and now. nothing. How could anyone ever say that the death of a young mother has a positive side to it? However, as we read in the haftorah on Rosh Hashana, Rachel played a significant role in how she cries over her children. Dying and being buried at that spot set up antidote for the Jewish people that the strike of exile would not spell their complete annihilation.

What good comes from the Reuven Bilhah incident? Beyond Rashi, who argues that Reuven did not sin, and of course the many commentaries who argue that he did sin, we can look to the interpretation of the Shakh, who defends Reuven’s sincere intentions to keep the family unit intact and maintain the requisite number of children required (12) to begin a new nation. His thinking went along the lines of, “If Yaakov has more children, some of his original 12 will be rejected. Perhaps he’ll start by rejecting some of Leah’s children.” So he took matters into his own hands to avoid the creation of more siblings. His actions ultimately preserved Am Yisrael’s family unit. 

We are taught in many places to judge people favorably, even and especially when we don’t see the whole picture, to say, “This too is for the best” even when in the moment it doesn’t seem that it is. We are taught to find a blessing in bad news, just as readily as we find something to be grateful for in good news.

Sometimes it takes time to see these things. And sometimes it is extremely important not to judge based on only one perspective. Even when trying to arbitrate or adjudicate between people in an argument, we must hear both sides.

It takes special people to hear the other person’s side and be able to acknowledge that such a side is valid. It may have taken Yaakov, for example, five seconds to realize this, but he didn’t get to act on it until 34 years later when he actually met up with Eisav and acknowledged, “Eisav, your grievance is valid.” And Eisav saw a positive side too — Yaakov has grown up, moved on from those days when he tricked me, and is ready to let bygones be bygones. Why don’t I meet him halfway, so we can depart as friends?

We should be blessed to be able to look past the bad and find the good in the challenges that come our way in life. And if we have to wait a little longer to find that good, let us be blessed with the patience to wait for it to roll around. Because it will come! We just need to open our eyes and embrace the possibility of being surprised one day when clarity hits.

Hopefully it will come through blessing and not through tragedy. And may we be blessed to know it when we see it and acknowledge G-d’s kindness, as Yaakov does at the beginning of the parsha when he says, “katonti,” I have become humbled from all the kindnesses you have shown me, which I have come to recognize as Your constant presence and Your constant protection through all the struggles life has brought.