In this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Vayishlach, our patriarch Jacob returned from Padan Aram to the land of Israel, and prepared to meet his wicked brother Esau, after not seeing him for many years. The verse tells us (32:23) that to reach his destination, he crossed the river along with his wives and eleven children. The question arises: Jacob at that point had twelve children, not eleven. Where was the missing child?
Rashi on Parshas Vayishlach quotes the Medrash that tells us that this is alluding to the fact that Jacob hid his daughter Dinah in a box in order to avoid Esau taking an interest in marrying her upon seeing her. Rashi continues to tell us that this act was not deemed favorable in the Eyes of the Almighty, because had Esau married her, she may have influenced him to get back on the right track. As a consequence, Jacob suffered having his daughter fall into the hands of a man in a loathsome manner, as described later on in this week’s Torah reading.
The question begs to be asked: What did Jacob do wrong? Being that Esau was a wicked person, why should Jacob have risked having his daughter marry him on the chance that she might help him change his ways? There was no guarantee that he would become righteous just by marrying Dinah. It would seem to be wrong to tell Dinah to marry a wicked person just because she might change him. Why in the world was Jacob punished for this?
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (Da’as Chchmo Umussar ma’amar 84) quotes the answer offered by the Alter of Kelm: Certainly, Jacob was completely correct in his decision to avoid any chance of his daughter being taken by a wicked person as a wife. However, if God held this against him, there must have been some flaw in his attitude. He must have been a bit too enthusiastic about hiding his daughter from Esau instead of regretting the fact that he couldn’t allow his daughter a chance to bring Esau back on the right path.
Rabbi Levovitz derives a tremendous lesson from this. It’s not enough to just perform the proper actions. God looks to make sure that our intentions and emotions are completely in line as well. If one does an act that should be done, but with a slightly flawed attitude, he will be judged for that as well.
A student of Rabbi Levovitz once had to borrow money from him. When the student returned to pay back the loan, he began to express gratitude for the loan. Rabbi Levovitz stopped him and reprimanded him since it is prohibited to do so (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 160:12 and Igros Mosheh, Yorah De’ah, Vol. 1, siman 80. There are, however, other authorities who do permit saying a plain “thank you.”), just as one may not pay interest or give anything else in addition to repayment of a loan to a Jew for receiving a loan.
A year later, the same student had to borrow money from him again. This time, when he paid back, he made sure not to thank Rabbi Levovitz. Once again, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz rebuked his student. “Why didn’t you express any gratitude for the loan? When someone does you a favor you must express appreciation!”
Dumbfounded, the student asked politely, “I don’t understand. Last time you told me I must not express gratitude, so I made sure not to do so again. Where did I err?” To which Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz answered, “It is absolutely correct that you should not have actually expressed your gratitude verbally, as I told you last time. However, the attitude you should have is that you feel so grateful, to the point that you have to struggle to restrain yourself from expressing it out loud. I sensed that this attitude was lacking, and that is why I chastised you.”
This concept obligates us with a new level of responsibility. It is not enough for us to judge whether or not our actions are in line, we must also pay attention to our attitude. Any time we must deny ourselves the chance to do a Mitzvah (good deed) due to a more pressing priority, or anytime we must deprive someone else of some benefit for some reason, we have to investigate how we feel about it. God pays attention to what our attitude is about the matter. Do we feel bad about missing out on the opportunity to accomplish or help someone, or do we feel happy about being absolved? If we don’t naturally feel sorry over the missed opportunity, we must consciously put effort into improving our attitude and show God we really care about the Mitzvah and wish we could do it.
Parshas Vayishlach by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber (firstname.lastname@example.org)