“Benefit of the Doubt” is a Jewish Value – Parshat Vayechi 5781

I try not to hold your outbursts against you. What I mean is that everyone has their Jekyll and Hyde moments. It starts as children, when the sweetest child can suddenly grab a toy from another child or scream uncontrollably, seemingly from out of nowhere. Of course these outbursts change as we grow and mature, but they still happen to adults. Something might set you off and cause a sudden and uncharacteristic personality shift. When this happens it can be startling, but I know this temporary emotion is not really you, just as you know it’s not really me.

Benefit of the doubt

It’s only when our actions and our moods – good or bad – become more regular that they start to define us. As bad as misplaced meanness might seem in the moment, there’s a difference between having one bad day and taking it out on someone versus constant yelling or always bullying. In the Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayechi, Jacob teaches us about this difference too.

This week, Parshat Vayechi, which is the final section of text in Sefer Bereshit (Genesis), tells of the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph and of their final moments with family. In his final moments, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons and all of his own children. He promises in this blessing to tell them what will happen to them in the future, but instead, he actually shares with each child their special gifts and character.

As Jacob is giving the blessings to each of his children, he is careful to focus on their actions as they relate to who they are. For instance, about Simeon and Levi he says, “Their weapons are tools of lawlessness . . . when angry they slay men.” He doesn’t say that Simeon and Levi are lawless or always angry; he qualifies it. Jacob does this in turn for each of his children. He mentions their behavior, but makes it clear he’s not saying his children are their behavior.

So often in the world our first impressions of someone will color how we perceive them throughout our relationship with them. So if that first meeting is tinted with anger or an off day for some reason, it’s hard to disassociate that experience from them. Seeing someone once on one day isn’t seeing who they truly are the other 364 days of the year.

Appropriately, Vayechi means “and he lived.” It reminds us that our lives are complex and filled with ups and downs. We make poor choices, and we have bad days. However, each of us as a human being is the total of all our actions, not just one action. Dan l’chaf zechut is the Jewish value of giving the benefit of the doubt. Jacob reminds us of this value when describing his sons, and our task is to build a world in which the benefit of the doubt is simply automatic.

– Rabbi Eve Posen

Source: “Benefit of the Doubt” is a Jewish Value – Parshat Vayechi 5781