July 21, 2024
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Admitting That the Shoe Is Not a Good Fit

The mitzvah of yibum calls upon the brother of a man who died without offspring to marry the widowed sister-in-law. The process of declining to fulfill this mitzvah is known as chalitza. The Talmud Yerushalmi brings proof that performing chalitza is praiseworthy by reference to this week’s parsha.

In blessing Yosef’s sons, Yaakov uses the word that is also used in connection with chalitza. The Yerushalmi then concludes that just as the action in this week’s parsha was praiseworthy, so also is chalitza praiseworthy. (“And from where do we know that chalitza is praiseworthy? It says here ‘he shall be called’ and it says there: ‘and they called by my name’ Just as ‘called’ there is praiseworthy even here it is praiseworthy.” וּמָאן דְּאָמַר. חֲלִיצָה שֶׁבַח. נֶאֱמַר כָּאן קִרְייָה וְנֶאֱמַר לְהַלָּן וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי. מַה קִרְייָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר לְהַלָּן שֶׁבַח אַף כָּאן שֶׁבַח) (Yevamot 12:6) Using a phrase that Yaakov employs in blessing his descendants to make a proof concerning chalitza at first blush seems a bit attenuated. Of course, some of what Yaakov says to his sons, particularly Reuven, Shimon and Levi, seem a bit attenuated from what we normally associate with a blessing. His blistering criticism at the end of his life and at the end of the book of Bereishit seems a bit disconcerting.

As we arrive at the end of the book of Bereishit it would be hard not to contemplate how matters could have turned out differently. It is likely that Yaakov, as he approached the end of his life, also contemplated how things might have turned out differently. Imagine if Avraham had been candid with Sarah. What if Avraham told her that the notion of his having a child with Hagar was not a good idea. At the time, the refusal to assist Sarah and her quest for a child might have seemed harsh, but in the long run it would have been beneficial. Imagine if Rivka, even without revealing the prophecy she received, had candid discussions with her husband about the inherent differences in their children’s personalities. A difficult conversation no doubt, but think what could have been avoided. Perhaps Yaakov could have obtained the blessing without any subterfuge. Imagine if Rachel told Yaakov that she intended to remove the idols from Lavan’s possession. Consider, if after Reuven interfered with his father’s marital relations, Yaakov had chastised him directly. What if Yaakov had been stronger in his reproof of Shimon and Levi, or had addressed the strife and resentment among his children. Such difficult dialogues never took place, thus forging the nascent nation’s future and our history.

Yaakov no doubt learned from his mistakes and those of his forebears. At this juncture he was going to be direct with his children. A “blessing” acknowledges, brings out or seeks to further develop something already present. This is why Elisha, in Melachim Bet (4:2), asks the destitute widow he seeks to help what she has in her home. All she has is oil. Elisha then causes the oil to flow until there are no more vessels left to fill. The Metzudat David explains that the impetus for Elisha’s question was the need for there to be something already in existence upon which a blessing can rest. This is among the reasons why we leave food on the table while Birkat HaMazon is recited.

Yaakov’s actions teach us that criticism can be a “blessing.” In strongly, if not harshly, addressing his three eldest children Yaakov was identifying for them character traits they had misapplied. Yaakov sought to help them redirect those traits from pernicious to praiseworthy. Reuven’s character trait of rashness could be turned into the trait of alacrity. Shimon and Levi employed zealotry and conviction in a distorted manner, but it could be redirected. Indeed, Levi would be the tribe most zealous and loyal to Hashem. Yaakov’s words to Reuven, Shimon and Levi do not at first blush look like a blessing but indeed they are words of blessing. Thus, we see the connection with chalitza.

It may not look acceptable to perform chalitza, rather than yibum, but at times, whether for family peace or fear of improper motives, chalitza, the seemingly harsher course, is preferred and praiseworthy. Confronting faults and failures is essential for personal teshuva. Confronting faults and failures with love and compassion, rather than engaging in polite avoidance, is essential in any healthy family relationship. It is also essential to the proper maintenance of our Torah communities. Yaakov had the courage to undertake this task. Levi had the courage to undertake this task. Do we?


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU, and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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