The following drasha was given at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo on Shabbat VaYechi 5749 (1988), and transcribed from memory by Dr. Jeffery Zucker.
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In this week's parsha we read how Jacob distributed his inheritance among his twelve sons.
An interesting aspect of this is that Jacob gives an extra portion (of his blessings) not to his firstborn Reuben (as one should, according to halacha), but to Joseph (Gen. 48:22).
What is the reason for this?
The Gemara (Baba Basra, 123) explains this with a parable. A man once took an orphan into his home, and raised him. When the orphan was finally in a position to make a living for himself, he decided, out of gratitude, that he would share his earnings with his foster father. How does this relate to the story? The Rashbam explains that Joseph is the foster father, and Jacob is the orphan.
This is incredible! How can we compare an act of kindness of a foster parent to an orphan, to Joseph's kindness to his father in Egypt? Jacob was Joseph's father, and had brought him up, and mourned over his loss, and rejoiced in their reunion! Whatever Joseph did to Jacob in Egypt, was surely no more than he richly deserved.
The answer to this, I think, lies in a difference of attitude between Jacob and most of us.
We are, in America, strongly concerned with our rights. We have a Bill of Rights, which is a good thing to have! But tzaddikim don't see good things done to them as their right. Jacob would have been completely justified, had he taken Joseph's kindness to him in Egypt as no more than his due. But he took it as something beyond the call of duty, for which a reward was due -- the double inheritance.
What can we learn from this?
First, it is not conducive to one's mental health to brood about what people owe one, since, in my experience, our estimate of other people's obligations to us is not usually the same as their estimate (for whatever reason).
But beyond that (since mental health is not my only concern), when people do some kindness to us, we should not look at the history of their deed to see if it is no more than what they owe us. We should take it as unmerited (which is probably how they consider it anyway!) and think about how we can repay them for their kindness.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
"A tree of life for those who embrace it"
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