Certain Misunderstood People Of The Book

Oct 29th, 2010 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week
The jury, passing on the prisoner’s life,

May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two

Guiltier than him they try.

–William Shakespeare from Measure for Measure

I remember my father zt”l’s response when someone said, “We have to realize that the most wicked people in the Bible were more holy and righteous than the holiest people in our time.” My father rolled his eyes and said, “It seems to me that you live in Purim (the time when everything is reversed) all year long!”

Yet, when thinking about the quote above, I wonder, not if if the biblical bad guys were great people, as plaited by that fool, but if they generally get a bum rap.  I wonder whether we the jury, passing judgment on them, are not “Guiltier than him they try.”

Laban is one of the most infamous biblical characters and yet we use his parting blessing to his sister Rebecca at every wedding. We may describe at the Seder, how he was more dangerous than Pharaoh, but when Isaac and Rebecca wanted a wife for Jacob, they sent him right back to Laban.

Human beings such as Rachel and Leah do not spontaneously appear. There must have been something special in their environment, in Laban’s home, that nurtured such extraordinary women.

It’s almost impossible for us to see Yishmael objectively, but he’s there at his father’s funeral, in a state of Teshuva. God judged him at Beer-Lahai-Roi, “ba’asher hoo sham,” as he was at that moment, in Teshuva, good and innocent. The Midrash even shares tales of Yishmael learning to emulate his father’s chesed.  Are we the jury judging him fairly?

The really good guy, Eliezer, is rejected by Abraham even as the master trusts only him to find a wife for Isaac: The devoted servant’s daughter is less fit as a wife for Isaac than the daughter of the wicked Betuel and the sister of the even worse Laban.

It’s almost as if the Torah is directing us to not see the biblical characters in black and white, but to understand them as multifaceted human beings, perhaps no guiltier than we who judge them.

I once taught a series in Traditional Synagogue of St Louis for my friend Rabbi Ephraim Zimand, entitled, “Certain Misunderstood People of The Book.” I focused on Cain, Ham, Nimrod, Yishmael, Laban and Esau. I found so much important material that I offered the course again, about five years later, together with Rabbi Tzvi Blanchard, a big Talmid Chacham and a spectacular therapist: “A Rabbi and a Therapist Examine Certain Misunderstood People of The Book.” I continue to discover deeper layers in the text, commentaries and Midrashim, and am trying to convince a psychiatrist neighbor to work through all the material with me.

I am convinced that each of the biblical bad guys represents a specific strategy of the Evil Inclination, and that only by studying the subtleties of their behavior can we understand the strategies of our greatest adversary and friend.

We can find hints of our own struggles in Laban, Yishmael, and Esau. We cannot afford to sit in judgment as a jury until we understand these people for who they really were.

Author Info:
Learn & discover the Divine prophecies with Rabbi Simcha Weinberg from the holy Torah, Jewish Law, Mysticism, Kabbalah and Jewish Prophecies. The Foundation Stone™ is the ultimate resource for Jews, Judaism, Jewish Education, Jewish Spirituality & the holy Torah.

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