Education Through Encouragement
This week's Torah portion ends with an account of the genealogy of Esau. In the midst of this we are told of the birth of Amalek, the progenitor of the nation that would constantly strive to destroy the Jewish people. "And Timna was a concubine to Eliphaz and Eliphaz gave birth to Amalek." (1) The Talmud informs us of the background to this terrible occurrence. "Timna was a princess, but she wanted to convert. She came to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob [to convert] but they would not accept her. She then became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau. She said that it was better to be a maidservant to this nation rather than be a powerful woman in another nation. [As a result] Amalek, who would cause Israel great pain, was born from her. What is the reason [that this incident produced Amalek]? Because they [the forefathers] should not have distanced her." (2) Rashi explains this to mean that they should have allowed her to convert.(3)
It seems clear that the forefathers had sufficient reason to reject Timna's efforts to join their nation. They were aware of the evil within Timna's nature. Consequently, they refused to allow her to join the Jewish people. Why were they punished so harshly for their seemingly correct decision?
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that we learn from here that no matter how bad a person is, one should not totally reject him.(4) As long as there remains any hope that the person will improve their ways, it is forbidden to distance them and thereby remove any chance of their repenting. Evidently, there was enough hidden potential within Timna that justified allowing her to join the Jewish nation.
Rabbi Shmuelevitz says that we learn a similar lesson with regards to Abraham's relationship with his wayward nephew, Lot. Abraham only split up with Lot when a dispute threatened to sour their relationship. Abraham did not receive prophecy while Lot was with him. Nonetheless, Abraham refrained from distancing Lot until he perceived that there was no hope of preventing Lot's spiritual descent. Despite all of Abraham's efforts and self-sacrifice in helping Lot, the rabbinical sources still criticize him for distancing his nephew. "Rav Yehuda says, there was anger against Abraham our father at the time that he separated his nephew from him; God said, 'He (Abraham) clings to everyone but to his own nephew he does not cling?!' " (5) Even though Abraham made great efforts to influence Lot and was even prepared to lose the gift of prophecy in order to influence him, nonetheless he is criticized for eventually sending him away.(6)
We have seen how it is incorrect to reject someone if there is any chance of saving him. What then is the correct approach to dealing with this difficult issue?
The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh sheds light on how to deal with a wayward child in his explanation of why Isaac wanted to bless Esau instead of Jacob. He argues that Isaac was totally aware of Esau's low spiritual level, and he nevertheless wanted to give him the blessings. He writes: "The reason that Isaac wanted to bless the evil Esau was that he believed that through receiving the blessings, he (Esau) would change for the good and improve his ways, because righteous people feel pain when their children do evil and he (Isaac) was trying to help him improve his ways. And it is possible that it would have worked." (7)
The Ohr HaChaim does not explain how giving Esau the blessings would have caused him to improve his ways. It is possible that giving the blessings to Esau would give him great encouragement and show him that his father had faith in his ability to continue the legacy of the forefathers. Such a show of confidence could in and of itself be the catalyst to causing Esau to change his ways. We learn from here that encouraging and showing faith in the wayward person is a key tool in helping him find faith in himself and giving him the strength to change his ways.
We see this principle with regard to a remarkable story involving Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner. There was a student in his yeshiva who was struggling badly with his learning. As a result he was severely lacking in self-confidence and found himself in a great spiritual descent. On one occasion, Rabbi Hutner was giving a complex class in Talmud and this student asked a seemingly ordinary question. Rabbi Hutner responded as if he had asked an ingenious question and throughout the lecture repeated it several times with great admiration. Receiving such adulation from such a great rabbi gave a tremendous boost of self-confidence to the boy. As a result, after this one occasion he experienced an incredible turnaround in his confidence, learning and general observance.(8) By showing this young man that he was indeed able to learn, Rabbi Hutner was able to give him the boost that changed his life.
We learn from the incident with Timna that rejecting a person as a hopeless cause is a very serious matter. We also learn from the Ohr HaChaim's explanation in Parshas Toldos that showing faith in a person is a tremendous way of helping him change his ways. These principles also apply to our general attitude and behavior towards our children, students and people around us. The Talmud tells us that we should push away with our left hand and bring in with our right, that we should give precedence to positive reinforcement over criticism. Showing others their inherent good is the most effective way of bringing about improvement. May we all merit to bring out the best in ourselves and those around us.
1. Vayishlach, 36:12.
2. Sanhedrin, 99b.
3. Rashi ibid.
4. Sichos Mussar, Parshas Pinchar, Maamer 85.
5. Bereishis Rabbah, Ch.41:8.
6. See Maamer 85 in full for other examples of this principle.
7. Ohr HaChaim, Toldos, 27:1.
8. Heard from My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits who heard this story from close relatives of the student.