November 14, 2002
What’s the Beef?
Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
A number of years ago, during the O.J. Simpson trial, I had a conversation with a non-Jewish merchant who told me that right after Simpson was arrested, he met a good friend of Simpson's at church. At the conclusion of the service, the merchant happened to stand right behind this man as he thanked the minister for his homily and then asked him, "Reverend, would you please pray for O.J."
The minister replied, "Yes, of course. But let's also pray for the victims as well."
Needless to say, this response outraged Simpson's friend. He interpreted the comment as disparaging to Simpson. Due to his respect for the minister, however, he kept his feelings to himself and waited until he left the church to vent his feelings to anyone who would listen. He announced that he was so upset that he was going to write the minister a letter of protest.
After telling me this story, I asked, "Do you mean that the man restrained himself and did not tell his minister how he felt?"
The merchant replied, "Oh no! No one would ever beef a minister to his face. But just think of it. He had the gall to think he could write such a letter to him."
After allowing me to absorb this story, the merchant asked me, "Rabbi, do you ever have such problems with your members? Would any Jew dare write a letter to you?"
I simply answered "Oh no! Jews never write letters," and left it at that. I didn't think it would enhance our stature if I told him the real facts.
Actually, as this week's Torah portion illustrates, we Jews may have invented the art of "beefing," of telling someone off, especially when there is justice in the complaint.
The biblical beefing may have been spontaneous in its ultimate delivery, but it developed over a 21-year period during which time Laban systematically swindled Jacob. First, after Jacob worked loyally and cheerfully for seven years without pay to earn Rachel as his bride, Laban tricked him into marrying Leah. Next, after working for Laban for 14 years, Jacob could not call any of the fruits of his labor his own. As the father of a large family, this disturbed him so that he could not help but ask, "When shall I provide for my own house also?" (30:30).
Laban's final deceit, his attempt to turn all agreements with Jacob to Jacob's disadvantage, impelled Jacob to take his family in the middle of the night, without telling Laban, and leave for the land of Israel. Laban, as we know, gave chase, and finally caught up with Jacob's camp. However, even when he hypocritically admonished Jacob for leaving in such a fashion, Jacob remained silent. Only after the wicked Laban ransacked Jacob's belongings, finding nothing, did Jacob become angry and "took up his grievance with Laban" (31:36).
Jacob's self control for 20 years, followed by a final indignant outburst against Laban, teaches all of us an instructive lesson: No matter how good a reason we have for anger, we must try self-control. Only when no other recourse remains, is anger an acceptable alternative.
Recently, a young man told me that ever since his father's death he had felt a sense of guilt, because he doesn't miss his father. It seems the father had been overly critical of his son. Nothing his son did was good enough. And now the son felt a weight had been removed from his shoulders. He came to me and asked if he was sinning for feeling this way.
I replied that inner feelings are not a sin; it is the actions we perform that count. I told him to learn from his father and judge everyone else with a good eye. Like the biblical Jacob, we must learn forbearance. Like Jacob, we must restrain from "beefing" our fellow man until there is no other alternative. If we can remember this lesson, we will find life itself so much more enjoyable.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.