Date: November 23rd 2017


Last week’s Parsha describes how Yaakov (Jacob), prompted by his mother Rivka (Rebecca), conspired to have Isaac’s (Yitzchak’s) major blessing diverted to himself from his brother Eisav (Essau).

Yaakov parents then advised him to flee Israel because Eisav was plotting to kill him. Yaakov complied and took up residence in Haran at the house of his uncle, Lavan. Yaakov later married his daughters Leah and Rachel and eventually became the father of a large family.

After twenty years passed, Lavan’s sons suddenly became openly hostile to Yaakov. This indicated to Yaakov that he had become less welcome at Lavan’s home than beforehand and it was, therefore, advisable to return to Israel. Hashem (G-d) then appeared to Yaakov and instructed him to do just that - return to his homeland.

Yaakov called his wives together and discussed why it was suddenly appropriate for them to all leave. He then added that Hashem had commanded him to return home. This seems peculiar. Why didn’t Yaakov simply relate that Hashem had specifically commanded them to leave Haran for Israel? This would have surely elicited their wholehearted cooperation. Torah observing women do not disobey Hashem’s overt commands.

The Commentary of the Ralbag (by Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, 1288–1344) addresses this question. He explains that, coercion is not the most effective method for influencing others — even when it is possible to do so. People seeking to influence others to act in a given manner (as Yaakov was) should ideally not use pressure. A better approach is to bring them to the point where they arrive at a hoped-for decision on their own. When this occurs, the commitment to that conclusion is more profound. This was why Yaakov first dialogued with his wives. It was to get them to independently support what he already decided. And only after they decided properly, to yet further deepen their commitment to depart, Yaakov added that Hashem had commanded them to leave.

These words of the Ralbag require further elucidation. Every period of Jewish history is replete with examples of righteous Jews hastening to fulfill every commandment of the Torah. Yaakov’s wives were the mothers of the Jewish Nation. They attained prophecy, and they were no doubt supremely righteous and G-d fearing. Seemingly, for such sanctified individuals whose commitment to Hashem’s Commands know no bounds, there is no higher imperative than obeying the specifically stated Word of Hashem. Every fiber of their beings, conscious and subconscious, would be dedicated to the task. Why wasn’t it enough for Yaakov to simply relate that Hashem had commanded them to leave?

An unavoidable circumstance of humanity is that every individual has a distinct disposition and leaning. Furthermore, however spiritual one may be, to a greater or lesser extent, the personal inclination will not always necessarily be one and the same as that of Hashem. When one has a built-in difficulty with performing a given action, a certain internal hesitancy can arise. This remains true, even when indisputedly holy people are attempting to comply with the explicitly stated dictate of Hashem.

Yaakov recognized that his wives might have understandably harbored an inner trace of resistance to leaving their family and homeland. He therefore initially avoided mention of Hashem’s command. Yaakov knew that they would certainly never overtly disobey Hashem’s Order. But Yaakov recognized something else: Rachel might feel a minutely greater measure of devotion to their own autonomous conclusion than to an outright directive of Hashem that ran contrary to their personal inclinations. In this type of situation, the independently formed conclusion remains preferable to a state of consent gained through external pressure.

Daily living includes frequent conflicts of wills. Parents and children, employers and employees, co-workers, siblings, friends, and spouses are always attempting to influence each other’s thinking. The concept of the Ralbag has obvious application to the conduct of these struggles. It teaches that if it can be accomplished, getting the other person to decide “my way” on his or her own accord is far more effective than “Please do this because I asked you to.”

Speaking anecdotally, a cardiologist recently remarked that most of his patients need to make significant lifestyle changes (i.e. diet and exercise) to increase their chances of recovery, Yet, the doctor said that despite what they are told, only one in seven of them actually make the changes. Based on the Ralbag, a more effective approach might be to hand the patients articles with statistics on the relationship between lifestyle and cardiovascular health. Then, if they opt on their own for a healthier way of living, their decisions would more likely endure.

Another particular scenario comes to mind. A very critical period in one’s development is that of adolescence and early twenties. People then make seminal decisions on school, career, and marriage — choices that will profoundly impact upon the direction of their lives. Parents, relatives, or rabbis often become heavy-handed “advice givers” who overwhelm these young people with what they assume to be the correct choices. (A common and understandable rationalization for this intrusion is that the young people are unprepared to decide alone on these weighty matters.)

The Ralbag indicates that the matter will likely not be best resolved by external pressure – even if it is in the form of advice that is absolutely sincere and absolutely correct. The young person will only be truly committed to decisions that are arrived at autonomously. Consequently, the most powerful influence one can wield is to somehow bring that other person to correctly decide the issue — independently.

There is an interesting corollary to this application. The recommendation herein is to guide family members toward making their own correct decisions on important matters such as marriage and career. What are the consequences if ‘advice givers’ ignore this counsel and instead succeessfully browbeat these young individuals toward a given decision? Based on the Ralbag’s idea, this can be a recipe for future failure. Real success in marriage and career is never automatic, even under ideal circumstances. Herculean exertions are often necessary to successfully triumph over the challenges that these areas present. The Ralbag is saying that overcoming these ‘trials’ will be incomparably more daunting for one who never fully and independently embraced the choice of what those specific challenges would be.

This is an edited version of the JHI Dvar Torah that was previously emailed on November 22, 2012. It was based on an essay in this writer’s volume, “Defining Humanity” on Sefer Beresheit.

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