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Parsha Vayishlach

It is the hardest thing to do to step outside of our own shell, to see the world through the eyes of another. "Do not judge your fellow, until you stand in his place," warns the Mishna in Avot, echoing the common ethical teaching to not judge until you have stood in someone else's shoes. These are famous words, true words, and yet, for all that they are repeated, far more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Instead, we mainly find ourselves explaining the motivations and the perspectives of others, and usually they say more about us than they do about our fellows.

We see just such a case in this week's parsha. Ya'akov sends messages to his brother, Eisav, to tell him "I live with Lavan, and I delayed my return until now”. The Rabbis explain that you should rearrange the letter of the word ‘I live’ (garti, גרתי, in Hebrew) to say taryag (תרי"ג), the number 613, corresponding to the 613 commandments given to Jews in the Torah. Ya'akov, according to this interpretation, was telling Eisav that he kept all 613 commandments in the Torah even while living with the evil Lavan!

Many questions have been asked about this statement. For example, Ya'akov did not in fact keep all the commandments. He married two sisters, something strictly forbidden by biblical law. However, this ignores the true difficulty with the statement. How could Ya'akov keep all 613 commandments in a Torah which had not yet been given?

Perhaps the simplest answer to this question is that it is true. Of course, Ya'akov did not keep all 613 commandments. But this did not matter. What matters is our own ability to learn valuable lessons from these texts. If that means reading our own perspectives into it, understanding it as confirming our own prior notions and predilections, that is ok. In the end, sometimes what truly matters is not what the text is actually saying, but what positive message we can extract from it.

It is true, don't judge your fellow until you stand in his place. But nevertheless, do try to understand him, even if that understanding is inevitably imperfect and rephrased in notions familiar to you but alien to him. It doesn't really matter as long as we use that new understanding for good.

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