After Yaakov completed the years of work he had committed to his uncle and father-in-law, Lavan, in exchange for his daughters’ hands in marriage, he proposed to Lavan an arrangement whereby he would continue his work. His “salary” for shepherding Lavan’s flocks would be all the striped and spotted animals, thus guaranteeing a simple and guaranteed way to avoid suspicion. As Yaakov says to Lavan, “My righteousness shall bear witness to me on a future day, when you review my payment…” (30:33). All Lavan would have to do is look over Yaakov’s animals and see if his herds included any animals that were not striped or spotted.
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, 130), surprisingly, finds fault in this remark made by Yaakov. Citing the verse in Mishlei (27:1), “Do not pride yourself for tomorrow, for you know not what the next day will bring,” the Midrash says that God responded to Yaakov’s remark by saying, “You said, ‘My righteousness shall bear witness to me on a future day’ – in the future your daughter will go out and be raped.”
Why did the Midrash object to Yaakov’s telling Lavan that his “righteousness” would “bear witness,” and how does this relate to the tragedy of Dina’s abduction and defilement?
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, explains that the Midrash understood Yaakov’s remark about his “righteousness” to mean that his anticipated success would testify to his pious stature. According to this Midrashic reading, Yaakov here proudly affirms that the sheep God would be giving him would prove to Lavan that he is innocent and righteous, and is thus well-deserved. And this is why the Midrash criticizes Yaakov. A person should never assume that his God-given blessings have been rightfully earned, that they are somehow a testament to his piety. Rav Ginsburg writes that we are entitled and encouraged to make this claim about the success of others, but not of ourselves. As part of our obligation to view people favorably and positively, we should assume that their good fortune has been well-earned. As for ourselves, however, we must be more critical and demanding. While we should certainly take pride in our achievements, we must never feel that we have done enough, that we have accomplished all we can in our service of the Almighty. And thus the Midrash responds to Yaakov’s expression of pride, “You said, ‘My righteousness shall bear witness to me on a future day’ – in the future your daughter will go out and be raped.” If we take the liberty to view our good fortune as testament to our piety, then we must also view our misfortunes as testament to our unworthiness. If we feel we can credit ourselves for deserving our success, then we must also take the blame for deserving our hardships.
The message conveyed by the Midrash, then, is not to make any such assumptions. All people experience both good fortune and sorrow over the course of their lives. Regardless of what we have gone through or are currently going through, in both good times and bad, we must be constantly striving to grow and improve ourselves, and to serve our Creator at the highest standard we can.