When Tinted Lenses Bring Faulty Conclusions

In this week’s Haftarah we learn that when the Ammonites attacked Bnei Yisrael, the elders of Gilad sought to bring back Yiftach, who had been driven away from his ancestral home by his half-brother. They pleaded with Yiftach to return and lead them in war against their enemies. At first he refused, but finally he agreed on the condition that he be named their leader (Shoftim 11).

In his classic sefer Sichas Mussar, Harav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, wonders about this demand. The passuk tells us that Yiftach expressed this condition “before Hashem,” making it highly unlikely that his intent was a blatant pursuit of honor. Rav Shmuelevitz uses this, along with several other teachings of Chazal, to prove a fundamental lesson in interpersonal relations: When others believe in an individual’s potential and abilities, it gives that person the strength to live up to their trust.

Yiftach’s message was this: “If I remain in your eyes the outcast you sent away, and you are summoning me back only for the purpose of waging a war, then I will not be able to achieve victory against the Ammonites. However, if you believe that I am worthy to be your leader, then I will be able to defeat our enemies.”

It is crucially important that we believe in ourselves, and that we believe in each other. Unfortunately, we tend to look at others through lenses tinted by our own inadequacies and shaped by the limits of our own narrow-mindedness.

A classic example of this fact was once powerfully illustrated by the The Klausenberger Rebbe, zy”a. The Rebbe once bemoaned the fact that a contemporary author, after citing an apparent contradiction between a statement by the Pnei Yehoshua and a Tosafos, concluded that the Pnei Yehoshua must have overlooked the Tosafos.

The Rebbe pointed out that Rabi Akiva Eiger had also posed such a question. But Rabi Akiva Eiger (who was born only a few years after the petirah of the Pnei Yehoshua) came to a dramatically different conclusion.

“I didn’t merit to understand,” the famed Gaon wrote. “May Hashem light up my eyes.”

The Klausenberger Rebbe explained the contrast between the two approaches. “Rabi Akiva Eiger knew every Tosafos in Shas. So he reasoned that if he knew every Tosafos, the Pnei Yehoshua certainly did. Therefore, it couldn’t possibly be that the Pnei Yehoshua had overlooked a Tosafos.

“This contemporary author,” the Rebbe continued, “only studied a few tractates, and only the first few blatt of each. So he assumed that just as he didn’t know many Tosafos, the Pnei Yehoshua didn’t either.”

Our minds are like a courtroom. With our eyes we collect evidence; our thoughts are the legal arguments, and our hearts are the judge. But unless we also take into account everything we can’t see, and everything we can see but can’t grasp, we will invariably come to faulty conclusions.

Rabi Eliezer ben Horkenus spent the first 28 years of his life as a total ignoramus, unable even to recite Krias Shema or Birkas Hamazon. His own father found it inconceivable that at that age he would begin to learn Torah and advised him instead to get married and focus on the next generation (Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer: 1).

Yet through tears, fasting, and powerful determination, Rabi Eliezer became one of the greatest of the Tanna’im, a pivotal link in the transmission of both the hidden and revealed parts of Torah Sheb’al Peh.

His closest disciple, Rabi Akiva, was an ignoramus until the age of 40. But Akiva’s wife, Rachel, believed that he was capable of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and she sent him off to learn Torah. As he later told his tens of thousands of disciples, “My [Torah] and yours is hers.”

There are a great many circumstances that lead many to arrive at very erroneous conclusions.

When tragedy strikes and young children are orphaned, there is a tendency among some to express doubts about these youngsters’ prospects. Arguing that it is difficult enough for two parents to raise children successfully nowadays, these pessimists assume that a single parent certainly won’t succeed. They do not take into account the fact that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is the Father of orphans. In reality, as the Rebbe, Harav Yonasan Eibschutz, zy”a, wrote in a letter to his sister-in-law, a grieving young widow, “We see that the majority of children who are successful in Torah, wisdom, yiras Shamayim, and commerce are orphans.” Orphans actually have a proportionally better chance than others to succeed in life.

The same is true regarding children of divorced couples. In many ways they face obstacles that are even more difficult than those of yesomim. However, when we take into account the siyatta diShmaya merited by all those who face challenges, we realize that, with the help of Hashem, these children are very likely to grow up happy and successful and to build beautiful, Torah-true homes of their own.

The same concept applies to many other situations.

It is time for us, as a community and as individuals, to rethink the way we view others and to stop making gloomy predictions about their prospects, which are both harmful and inaccurate. Instead we must focus on believing in others and in ourselves. For through the infinite kindness of Hashem, what seems impossible becomes feasible, and what appears unthinkable can become a reality.

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