Vayishlach 5778

Learning from one’s teacher[1]

ויאמר אם-יבוא עשו אל-המחנה האחת והכהו והיה המחנה הנשאר לפליטה
[Yaakov] said: “If Eisav comes to one of the camps and strikes them, the remaining camp will survive”[2]

During the sovereignty of Achav, the wicked King of Israel, the prophet Ovadiah had to protect himself and all the other prophets from his reign of terror. The verse says[3] Ovadiah took one hundred prophets and hid fifty of them in a cave. Chazal ask[4] why didn’t he put them all in the cave? Rabbi Elazar answers that Ovadiah learned this strategy from Yaakov. When Yaakov and his family were about to confront his wicked brother Eisav, he divided his camp into two. This tactic was in case of the horrible event that one of the two camps is killed, at least the other one would survive. Why did the gemarra need to say that Ovadiah learned this strategy from Yaakov? Simply say that he thought of the idea himself[5]!

In fact, we see a couple of other cases where Chazal learned a basic lesson from Yaakov. The gemarra gives the advice[6] that if you ever meet a shady individual[7] on the street who asks you how far you are travelling, you should exaggerate the amount. If you only needed to walk one mile, tell them two miles. Doing this will increase the chances they won’t want to “join you for a walk” [8]. The gemarra says we learn this from Yaakov’s behavior with Eisav. After they had made peace, Yaakov told Eisav he would meet him by Mount Seir[9]. In reality, Yaakov had no intention of traveling that far. With that, he evaded continued interaction with Eisav. The third case is that Rabbi Elazar suggested to his father Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that they should contribute to the city of Tevariah, which had been helpful to them in the past. Rabbi Shimon responded that they are in fact obligated, since we see that Yaakov gave back to the city of Shechem which had hosted his family[10]. Even in an instance where they had thought of the idea on their own, Rabbi Shimon wanted to find an earlier source for this lesson. Why would this be?

Nevertheless, we find a more extreme version of this phenomenon of looking for earlier sources. There was once an incident[11] where Rebbe was teaching a class to his students, and one of them stunk of garlic. He asked whoever was the one who had eaten garlic to leave at once. Rabbi Chiyah immediately got up and left. In his honor, everyone else got up and left as well. The next morning, Rabbi Shimon, the son of Rebbe, asked Rabbi Chiyah how he could disrupt his father’s class by stinking of garlic? Rabbi Chiyah explained that he didn’t really eat garlic; he simply wanted to spare the guilty party the embarrassment of being caught. The gemarra asks where did Rabbi Chiyah learn this behavior from? It responds that he learned it from Rabbi Meir.

Once a woman came to the study hall of Rabbi Meir and claimed one of the students had married her in an inappropriate manner and she doesn’t know who it was. Rabbi Meir wrote her a get, a bill of divorce, and gave it to her. Subsequently, all the students gave her a get. This way, no one knew who had acted inappropriately. The gemarra asks where did Rabbi Meir learn this behavior from? It answers from Rabban Gamliel.

Once, Rabban Gamliel invited seven sages to his office[12] to rule on an important matter[13]. After everyone had gathered, it was discovered that in fact eight people had come. Rabban Gamliel asked who was the one who came without permission. Shmuel HaKatan got up and said he was the one who came without permission, even though he wasn’t the real culprit. Shmuel HaKatan was concerned for the embarrassment of the real guilty party, so he took the blame upon himself. The gemarra asks where did Shmuel HaKatan learn this behavior from? It answers from Shechenyah ben Yechiel. He had confessed to Ezra the Sofer that during the Babylonian exile he had married outside the faith[14]. He said this, despite the fact that he wasn’t one of the guilty parties, in order to spare others from the embarrassment of confessing. The gemarra asks where did Shechenya ben Yechiel learn this behavior from? It answers from the story of Yehoshua and Achan[15].

Achan had broken the ban on taking spoils from the city of Yericho. Consequently, the Jews lost their subsequent battle against the citizens of Ai. Hashem told Yehoshua that the reason they lost was because the Jewish people had sinned. Yehoshua asked Hashem who was the guilty party. Hashem responded: “Am I a gossiper?”. To spare Achan from the embarrassment of being exposed, Hashem made a general statement that the Jewish people had sinned. However, some say that Shechenya ben Yechiel learned his behavior from the story of Moshe and the first Shabbos observed in the wilderness[16]. Some people had gone out to gather the mun on Shabbos, even though they were forbidden from doing so. Hashem then asked Moshe: “How much longer will you all refuse to keep my mitzvos and teachings?”. This is another example where Hashem spared the guilty parties from embarrassment[17].

The gemarra goes to great lengths to find a source for seemingly simple ideas. We learn from all these examples that a person should try to avoid doing something completely original. Sometimes a new idea, while well-intentioned, has unintended consequences. If there’s a precedent, then it will more likely prove fruitful. This is why all of these Sages didn’t behave as they did until they had an earlier source for this behavior. Even though it was something logical (especially the lessons learned from Yaakov).

But there’s a further lesson. We see that in each case the sage could only learn from a person they had a connection with. Rabbi Chiyah only learned from Rabbi Meir, instead of learning directly from Shmuel HaKatan. More than this, the original source in that chain was a verse in the Torah. Instead of learning directly from that, Rabbi Chiyah and the others learned it specifically from their teacher. We learn from here that it’s always better to learn something from your teacher rather than to learn from an external source. Since the teacher knows their student, they can give over the information in the appropriate fashion. As well, the teacher can clarify to their student any misunderstandings. Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Sichos Mussar § 14

[2] Genesis 32:9

[3] I Kings 18:4

[4] Sanhedrin 39b

[5] Maharsha ad. loc.

[6] Avodah Zarah 25b

[7] Literally: an idol worshipper (who would be suspected to be dangerous)

[8] Rashi ad. loc.

[9] Genesis 33:14

[10] Bereishis Rabbah 79:6

[11] Sanhedrin 11a

[12] Literally: attic

[13] To intercalate the year

[14] Ezra 10:12

[15] Joshua Chapter 7

[16] Exodus 16:23-28

[17] See Chofetz Chaim Hilchos Loshon Harah 10:17 who based on all these stories brings the Sefer Chassidim § 22 who says that a person must take the blame for something they didn’t do. However, it could be argued that this is just a law for pious individuals and not incumbent upon everyone