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How to Learn Torah: Lavan-Esav bad and Shimon-Levi good?!


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Kislev 26, 5778
Hi, I have a confusion over last several Parashot. This year I follow everything every week and I read first myself without commentaries, then with Rashi commentaries and a bit from another Humash with mixed commentaries. I am sorry for my views and questions I am asking, please do not see them as a disrespect. I just need to understand. Laban is considered to be bad. Esau even worse. Now reading Humash as is, without commentaries it seems to be not a clear case. First Shimon and Levi kill the men of Shechem against both Dina’s and Jakob’s will. What did Laban do as bad? From Torah not as much. A falsification with Rochel and a few other things to me matches Jacobs/Rebecca’s with Esau. Yes, from Midrash we read that Laban was hugging and kissing Jakob to check if he has lots of money... but not form the written Torah. If Laban was so cruel why written Torah doesn’t say it as clear as about Simon and Levi’s Shechem revenge? Then written Torah tells clearly (without the help of Midrash) that the brothers thought of killing Joseph. But, following this, Esau and Laban are just angels. Esau was crying and hugging Jakob and forgot all that Jacob did to him. Rashi explains a lot, but one thing constantly is in my mind: everything is relative. And analyzing this relativity most of things makes clear. For argument sake, if we were descendants of Laban or Esau it would be much easier via such explanations to present them like angels in compare with Shimon and Levi. Please explain me why is it all that strange? Is it only me? Do you have anyone else asked a similar question? My sincere and best regards.
All the power to you, upon your recently embarking on deeper Torah study, and your intellectual honesty to ask for direction in how to study Torah! My friend, we Jews have been studying Torah for 3,300 years and it’s pretty rare to hear a new difficulty which hasn’t been asked many times beforehand, including all of your questions. It’s a sign that your learning is “on the ball”, which is great! First generally: much has been written about the 4 different types of study: pshat (=literal, from the context), remez (=hints, allusions in-between the lines), drash (=midrashim, often ethical lessons which usually aren’t meant to be taken literally), and sod (=kabbalah). It’s very important not to mix these different fields, which is, no offense, what you did in your question. The midrashim about Lavan and Esav which you cited, consciously exaggerate their sins, as do hundreds of other midrashim which also exaggerate (sometimes even invent!) sins and shortcomings of our forefathers, as above, in order to drive home ethical and ideological messages (there are also midrashim which educationally take the opposite approach and praise Lavan and Esav…). Regarding Shimon and Levi, there are differences of opinion among the commentaries and midrashim, as well as kabbala, as to whether their actions were commendable (sticking up for the honor of their sister and that of Israel), negative, or exaggerated. We must also be careful not to be anachronistic (misapplying modern and contemporary values to a primitive society), and remember that in their primitive culture of 3,600 years ago, without police and justice, where murder of your wife, children, slaves and how much more so mistreating foreigners, was totally accepted, the issue of the “new family in the neighborhood” needing to react strictly to deter the “locals” from any additional rape, theft murder or exploiting, was extremely accepted and even necessary for survival. Accordingly, many consider the revenge of Shimon and Levi as positive (including the super-rationalist Rambam/Maimonides!), while most others opine that it was too much. Also, remember, the eternal Torah has to be relevant today and in a thousand years from now, but also had to be relevant in the primitive culture in which it was given 3,300 years ago. Unfortunately, even today Israel is still threatened by terrorism as well as nuclear bombs, and this lesson that we Jews who, although we love peace, must often overcome our niceties to deter our enemies, is as relevant as ever (especially after we got used to being trodden upon for 2,000 years in exile!). In short, don’t limit yourself to Rashi, but as you also learn Ramban (the 2nd most basic, after Rashi), Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Malbim, RShr. Hirsch, Netziv (the most recommended commentaries for you, who apparently prefer “pshat”) and the hundreds (!) of other commentaries, as well as polishing your skills in understanding midrashim, you will clearly differentiate between the four aforementioned different approaches (in addition to the many varied explanations even within each “school”), and appreciate the concept of the “70 different facets of the Torah”. The more you study and question, with dedication, humility, intellectual honesty and open-mindedness, the more you will love Torah study and appreciate why this is the universal and eternal “Book of Books”! May I also highly recommend your contacting a local rabbi who specializes in Tanach, with who you can study and consult regularly. All the best and Happy Chanuka!
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