SALT - Friday, 28 Cheshvan 5778 - November 17, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Parashat Toldot tells of Yitzchak’s experiences with the Philistines after settling in their region, in the city of Gerar, during a period of drought.  Yitzchak prospered after moving to the region, as his fields produced many times more than the usual yield.  He became very wealthy, arousing the envy of the Philistines, to the point where the Philistine king, Avimelekh, drove him from the city (26:16).  After relocating, Yitzchak found himself victimized by unscrupulous Philistine shepherds who stole his wells.  Later, Avimelekh initiates a meeting of reconciliation, traveling to Yitzchak’s home in Be’er Sheva to propose a formal treaty between the two parties.  The Torah writes that they made a treaty and feasted together, after which Yitzchak bid the king and his general farewell, “and they left him in peace” (26:31).
            The plain meaning of this conclusion, of course, is that the Torah seeks to emphasize that the Yitzchak’s relations with the Philistines finally became peaceful.  After having endured their hostility for quite some time, he once and for all enjoyed amicable relations with them.
            Rav Simcha Bunim of Pashischa, however, detects an additional dimension of this description of Avimelekh’s “peaceful” departure from Yitzchak’s presence, suggesting an element of criticism.  A conscientious person, Rav Simcha Bunim writes, does not leave the presence of an outstanding figure in a completely “peaceful” state of mind.  An encounter with a righteous person should leave one feeling somewhat uneasy and uncomfortable with himself.  Upon beholding greatness, we ought to feel some degree of lowliness, recognizing how far we are from maximizing our potential.  When we take leave of a giant, we are to feel small.  Avimelekh was too comfortable with himself, and thus he is derisively described as leaving Yitzchak’s presence “in peace,” without any feelings of unease or smallness.
            Rav Simcha Bunim’s remark is consistent with Avimelekh’s arrogant character as it is presented in this story.  Avimelekh falsely and self-righteously told Yitzchak that he sought a treaty to ensure that Yitzchak would not cause harm to the Philistines, the way they caused him no harm.  He spoke of himself and his people as the righteous victims in this tense relationship, as though they treated Yitzchak fairly and had reason to fear his unprovoked hostility.  Rav Simcha Bunim, it seems, observes that this blatant dishonesty is rooted in exaggerated self-assurance and comfort with oneself.  If we feel too comfortable with who we are, then we will always see ourselves as innocent victims, and refuse to admit wrongdoing.  We need to have the courage to judge ourselves with pure objectivity, to acknowledge our faults and weaknesses just as we pride ourselves over our noble qualities and our strengths.  We should feel a degree of uneasiness with ourselves and our accomplishments, a feeling which will, hopefully, spur us to constantly work harder to strive to become better.