Facing Moral Failings – A Brief Devar Torah for Parashat VaYeitzei

I’ve always been sensitive to hypocrisy and double-standards, particularly those along partisan lines, so the past two years have been particularly exhausting. The same people who will excoriate political opponents for certain transgressions will forgive and justify those same transgressions when it’s politically expedient. This is true of Evangelicals who support Trump or excuse or even romanticize the transgressions of those who are (or have been) political allies.

To this end, I’m reminded of a sermon I gave for Parashat VaYeitzei in 2013 on the role personal connections affect our reactions to immoral behavior.

When Jacob flees Lavan, his beloved wife Rachel steals her father Lavan’s terafim – idols/gods (Gen 31:19). Lavan pursues Jacob and confronts him, both for sneaking off in the middle of the night, and also for stealing his Gods (Gen 31:26-30). Jacob responds that he fled because he was afraid of Lavan, and cursed whoever took Lavan’s idols saying that person, “shall not live.” (Gen 31:31-21). According to rabbinic tradition (Gen Rabba 74:9), it was Jacob’s curse which caused Rachel to later die in childbirth (Gen 35:18-19).

It’s important to note that he Torah adds an important detail after recording Jacob’s curse: “Jacob did not know it was Rachel who stole [the idols]” (Gen 31:32). This detail invites the obvious question: had Jacob had known it was Rachel would he still have spoken as harshly? Indeed, some commentaries (e.g. Seforno) state explicitly that had Jacob had known Rachel had stolen the idols he would not have said what he did.

To me, this narrative teaches an important lesson in testing the scale and scope of one’s moral indignation. Imagine for a moment if the same for which you denounce your worst enemy is committed by a loved one. Would be as vociferous in your condemnation or would you temper your response with compassion and understanding?

According to Torah, we are supposed to be impartial in judgment and not “recognize faces” (Deut 16:19). While few of us hold official judicial positions, most of us (myself included) pass judgment on others as easily as we breathe, and nearly as often.

I can appreciate that we will probably be more compassionate to those closest to us. I often quote Prov 10:12, “Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers up all faults” because I see it manifested repeatedly. But the flip side is that the rage we feel towards others isn’t based entirely on principle.

Thus, I would suggest that before we take to the internet to cast our moral judgments against others to take a moment to think about how we would react if we were talking about someone dear to us, and if there would be any discrepancies in content or tone to consider why that would be.

Because as we’ve been discovering, the curse one levies against ones hated enemy may at some point find its way back to a trusted ally, friend, or loved one.

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