Vayeitze: Discernment and Rebuke

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze, Yaakov is on the run from his brother, who is quite
understandably angry with him. He goes back to his mother’s hometown,
in search of his uncle Lavan and his family. Yaakov ends up marrying
two of Lavan’s daughters, but before he even meets them, he has an
interesting encounter at the well outside of town:

“Yaakov resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners.
There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep
were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that
well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the
flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth
of the well and the sheep watered. . .

Yaakov said to them, ‘My friends, where are you from?’ And they said,
‘We are from Haran.’ He said to them, ‘Do you know Lavan the son of
Nahor?’ . . . [Yaakov] said, ‘It is still broad daylight, too early to
round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture.’ But
they said, ‘We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the
stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep.’
(Bereshit/ Genesis 29:1-9, edited)

Rashi, along with other commentators, interprets this interaction as a
gentle rebuke by Yaakov to the herders he sees resting by the well.
Here’s Rashi’s comment:

“Since he saw them lying down, he thought that they wished to gather
the livestock to return home and that they would no longer graze. So
he said to them, ‘It’s still day’ i.e., if you have been hired for
the day, you have not completed the day’s work, and if the animals are
yours, it is, nevertheless, not the time to take in the livestock.”

Now, as it turns out, Yaakov didn’t understand what he saw- he thought
the herders were slacking off, when really, they were waiting for
enough men to gather to roll the big stone off the top of the well,
which Yaakov then does for them. One could also reasonably point out
that it’s none of Yaakov’s business whether or not the shepherds are
resting or working- he didn’t hire them. Yet Rashi implies- and others
say explicitly- that Yaakov was justified in rebuking the shepherds,
because it appeared to him that they weren’t doing the job for which
they were hired.

It’s a gentle chiding, to be sure; Yaakov prefaces his questions by
calling the men “achai,” literally “my brothers.” Some commentators
see Yaakov’s comment as a fulfillment of the mitzvah of “tochecha,” or
“rebuke,” which the Chafetz Chaim explains as a universal obligation
to point out to others when they are violating a Torah law. (Cf.
Vayikra/Leviticus 19:17) The Chafetz Chaim goes on to say that one
must never shame another person or humiliate them, and one is not
obligated to keep saying anything past the point at which one’s words
are rejected. Furthermore, as Yaakov’s interaction with the herders
illustrates, we often don’t have all the facts, and hasty judgments
could lead to highly problematic interactions.

Yet will all those caveats- and many more in the commentary on this
mitzvah- it’s still true that Judaism teaches the ethical duty to
speak up when one sees others engaged in wrongdoing. We have to be
careful, we have to be gentle, we have to be thoughtful, we have to be
humble, but we must also have the courage of our convictions. Yaakov
was wrong when he thought the shepherds were cheating their employer-
but imagine a world in which honest employees of Enron or Worldcom
spoke out when they saw violations of corporate ethics.

Imagine a world in which honest people routinely spoke out when they
saw dishonesty or cruelty, and you understand why this mitzvah is
crucial to religious ethics. “Tochecha,” or “rebuke,” isn’t about
setting oneself up as the judge of others- it’s about having the
courage to speak when the situation calls for it. It’s a very tough
mitzvah to do – in fact, there are some who say it’s almost
impossible- but it’s also a mitzvah which teaches us about moral
courage, which the world needs now more than ever.

Shabbat Shalom,


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