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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Learning from the Chinese

Megillah 13

My friend Marc was telling about his recent business trip to China.  He was sitting in a restaurant and ordered a bowl of soup.  Upon tasting the soup, he realized that the chef must have slipped with the salt and so he wanted to send it back to the kitchen.
“Wait,” said his host, “First, you must compliment the chef.”
“Are you kidding me? What do you mean?” asked Marc.
“Well, if you send it back to the kitchen just like that, you will embarrass the chef in front of all the other kitchen staff.  You can’t do that.”

Rabbi Elazar taught: What is the meaning of the verse in Job “He withdraws not his eyes from the righteous?”  In reward for the modesty displayed by Rachel, she was granted to number among her descendants Saul, and in reward for the modesty displayed by Saul, he was granted to number among his descendants Esther.

What was the modesty displayed by Rachel?  It is written, “And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father's brother.”  Now was he her father's brother?  Was he not the son of her father's sister?  

What it means is the following:
He said to her, “Will you marry me?”
She replied, “Yes, but my father is a trickster, and he will outwit you.”
He replied, “I am his brother in trickery.”
She said to him, “Is it permitted to the righteous to indulge in trickery?”
He replied, “Yes, (as King David writes in Psalms) ‘with the pure show yourself pure and with the crooked show yourself subtle’.”
He asked her, “What is his trickery?”
She replied, “I have a sister older than me, and he will not let me marry before her.”  So Jacob gave her certain signs to exchange under the wedding canopy, to ensure he was marrying the right sister.

When night came, Rachel said to herself, “Now my sister will be put to shame.”  So she gave over the signs to her sister, Leah.  Thus, it is written, “And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah.”  Are we to infer from this verse that up to now she was not Leah?  Rather, what it means is that on account of the signs which Rachel gave to Leah, Jacob did not know till then.  Therefore Rachel was rewarded by having Saul among her descendants.  

What modesty did Saul display?  Saul set out to search for his missing donkeys.  On the way, he met the prophet Samuel who told him that he would become the king but that he should not yet tell the world.  Upon his return, it is written, “But concerning the matter of the kingdom whereof Samuel spoke he told him not.”  He was therefore rewarded by having Esther among his descendants.

What happened next after Rachel gave the signs to Leah who showed them to Jacob who wakes up in the morning to find Leah lying next to him?  The Torah doesn’t say but you can imagine he went over to Rachel and said, ‘Are you crazy?  Why did we bother with our whole scheme of the signs if you were going to give it to your sister?’  Not only did she miss out on marrying Jacob (at least to begin with) but she had to bear his wrath on top of it all!  That’s how far she was prepared to go to protect her sister’s dignity!

Not allowing for someone to ‘lose face’ is an extremely important Asian quality that we could all learn from.   You don’t complain about the salty soup until you’ve complimented the chef first.  In North America, we pride ourselves on being ‘brutally honest,’ but that’s not a Torah value.   The Torah expects us to do whatever we can to boost people’s esteem and dignity.

How far would you go to protect another’s dignity?   How much of yourself would you give to avoid embarrassing someone else?   Every interaction you have with another human being, remember that their “face” was created in the image of G-d.  Will your next move be to ‘lose’ G-d’s image or to ‘save’ G-d’s image?

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