5767 - #10


Rashi, Bereishit 28:9 states that Yosef was away from Yaakov Avinu for 22 years as punishment to Yaakov for being away from his parents for 22 years. Rashi further explains that Yaakov was so punished for by remaining in Lavan’s house and building a family during this time, Yaakov effectively barred himself from fulfilling the mitzvah of honouring his parents. Yet, Yaakov, during this time was actually acting in accord with Yitzchak and Rivka’s directive to him to escape from Esav and to choose a wife from the daughters of Lavan;1 how could he, therefore, be culpable for staying away? Sefat Emet, VaYeitze 634.states that, in reality, Yaakov’s entire sojourn with Lavan can be compared to the punishment of exile that is meted out to someone who kills accidentally. He adds that this was because Yaakov really had the power to reach out to Esav and draw him closer to God. Yaakov, though, did not recognize his own spiritual strength and, as such, adopted a different path in his relationship with Esav, maintaining a distance -- which would, in fact, have been a correct path for anyone else. The result was the friction that ensued and, eventually, the need for Yaakov to escape to Lavan’s house. All that occurred was the result of Yaakov’s mistaken perception that he had to maintain a distance and, so, Yaakov’s separation from Yitzchak and Rivka really was comparable to one who kills by mistake.2

            This presents a most interesting perspective on understanding the flow of life and the changing nature of the decisions that we are called upon to make. Clearly, Yaakov’s decision to flee to Lavan’s house was a correct one. Furthermore, given the facts at this point in time, the action and subsequent separation from his parents was not, in any way, a direct violation of the mitzvah to honour his parents. Yet, this specific situation arose as a result of decisions made years before which the Sefat Emet describes as incorrect decisions. Yaakov was still to be held responsible for his prior mistakes even as he made proper decisions given the circumstances before him now. This is the nature of life. As much as we wish to correct our mistakes and make correct decisions in the moment, there is the reality of the circumstances in which we now find ourselves, the result of previous decisions. We still must make decisions given these circumstances yet that does not mean that, even as we make the proper decision given the circumstances, the decision is really, within the broader perspective, the correct decision. We often create these circumstances as a result of previous, incorrect decisions and may still be held culpable for having created these circumstances. In a strange way, Yaakov had to do something that was wrong within the broader perspective because the circumstances now deemed it to be correct within the current given perspective – and he was thus still culpable for having to be away from his parents for so long.

            Rabbi Moshe Friedman, Thought of the Week, Or Torah, Vayeshev defines this reality as reflected in the term din v’cheshban, judgement and evaluation. He explains that often what one does is clearly proper given the parameters of judgement as it is before him/her in the moment. Still, in terms of the broader evaluation with consideration of one’s life as a whole and the decisions previously made, with consideration of how this person found himself/herself in these circumstances, we may draw a different conclusion about our level of responsibility and culpability. But, still, is there nothing we can do? Are we now victims of our conclusions subject to continue to pay the price for previous mistakes and destined to continue to make decisions given the circumstances albeit that they are still negative in the broader perspective? The answer is oftentimes yes and this it what occurred in Yaakov’s life. The story of Yosef and his brothers and the story of Chanukah, though, inform us that sometimes we can affect the broader perspective of life and re-create the circumstances.

         Many question why Yosef waited for his brothers to come to him rather than immediately informing Yaakov, when he became viceroy, that he was alive. Similarly, many question why Yosef initiated this charade in response to his brothers’ request for grain. Yosef did not wish to simply make the proper decisions given the circumstances. He wished to change the circumstances. This cannot always be done. Even when it can be attempted, it must be recognized that such an undertaking is not an easy one and must be carefully considered and can also have its consequences. His plan demanded years in order to come to fruition and focused on the essence of what needed to be corrected, not just the outer shell of behaviour – and in the end he still was not sure if he accomplished this goal.3

         Chanukah, similarly, has this theme of not simply living by the circumstances but attempting to change the circumstances. When only one small jar of oil was found, the circumstances deemed it impossible to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the menorah properly; it could only now be lit for 1 day until new, pure oil could be delivered in 8 days. And the people acted within the parameters of the circumstances even though, from the broader perspective, the mitzvah would still be lacking. The miracle that occurred was that God miraculously intervened to change the circumstances and allow the mitzvah to be fulfilled even within the broader perspective. In the world of din v’cheshban we also have another alternative; we can ask God to intervene, not only to not hold us responsible on the level of cheshban, but to somehow affect the circumstances so that the cheshban is also proper. The great challenge, and this is perhaps part of the lesson of the sad final chapter of the Chashmonayim, is that we cannot always rely upon this intervention – it is God’s decision to act above nature, not ours – and so we must make decisions based on the circumstances within the parameters of what we can do given the natural facts.

         Life is dynamic and builds from one moment to the next. One of the great tragedies of existence is hindsight – recognizing that with the knowledge that one has now, he/she would have made a different – better, more righteous – decision in the past. This is part of the process of teshuva, but nonetheless we often still find ourselves bound by the parameters of these decisions, these incorrect decisions. Teshuva cannot generally change the circumstances and, sadly, we often find ourselves bound by the parameters created by these incorrect decisions. The answer cannot be to simply ignore this reality. The call of Torah is to make the best decision today given these circumstances – even as these decisions may reflect the continuation of our past mistakes. That, according to the Sefat Emet, is the lesson of Yaakov. Yet, the story of Yosef informs us that, sometimes, there is the possibility to also affect the circumstances although this is often a difficult undertaking and must be recognized as such. It is not always an alternative and, even when it is, it demands much consideration and thought. We, though, do have an alternative that always exists. We can, even as we act within the circumstances, always pray to God for a miracle – to intervene and bring about a change in the circumstances. Perhaps God does, perhaps He does not – that is His cheshban; but the reality is that He can. This is the story of Chanukah.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1)  See Bereishit 27:42-28:6.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the past Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, Baltimore, argued that Yitzchak’s intent in giving a bracha to Esav (not the birkat Avraham, it should be mentioned) was to initiate thereby a process of reform.
See Bereishit 50:15-21.

(c) Nishma, 2006.

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