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Tough Decision

By: Rabbi Michael Naftali Unterberg

After the food ran out in Canaan, Yaacov makes an overly simple request, and Yehuda responds with a devastatingly simple choice. The request, of course, was to get more grain from Egypt. Yehuda plainly restates the dilemma that had been facing Yaacov for some time. Either they return to Egypt with Binyamin among them, or they will not return at all. The unstated consequence of the latter, would be slow starvation. 

Seemingly nonsensical, Yaakov rehashes the past, rather than immediately make his decision.

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“Why did you harm me, by telling the man that you had a brother?”

It is only after Yehuda claims that they had no choice, and that he will take full responsibility, that Yaacov makes his fateful decision. But why did Yaacov even bring up this question at that time? A decision needed to be made, why stall by rehashing the past?

Professor Nechama Lebowitz, one of the great Torah minds of the 20th century, told her students that this was not surprising behavior at all. “ “, she said. “It is so deeply human.” When faced with two terrible options, a person will often change the subject to delay being forced to choose. 

By way of analogy, she said we can imagine a very ill person, being presented with a difficult choice by their doctor; Either undergo a very risky surgery that may kill the patient, but could cure them forever, or forget the risky procedure, and die within months. Perhaps the patient might respond, “What if I had taken better care of myself? Could I have avoided this illness?”. While irrelevant, said Professor Lebowitz, we could easily understand the psychological forces pushing that individual to delay having to make that hard choice, by rehashing hypothetical scenarios. That is exactly how she understood Yaakov’s response, and savored the gift the Torah presented by letting us have a peek into the heart of our forefather. 

This would certainly not be the last time Jews would be forced to choose between unpalatable options. The Maccabees had only the options of extinction as a people and culture, or war against their brothers bolstered by a great empire. They chose well, and sacrificed to make their decisions lead to success. 

“As it was in those days, so to in these”, we sing at candle lighting on Chanuka. Modern Israel and Zionism has often placed Jewish leaders and people on the horns of such dilemmas, and continue to do so. May we have the faith and bravery of our forefathers, and the help of the Creator, in making those decisions well and correctly. 

Chanuka Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.





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