There is a humorous anecdote I read as a boy that reflected disparagingly on liberal Judaism. A woman came to a Reform rabbi with a 'shayla', a halachic question.
She said " Rabbi on my stove I had a pot of milk and a pot of chicken soup cooking next to each other. The pot of milk boiled over and some of the hot milk fell into the chicken soup. What do I do?" The rabbi reflected a moment and then told her, "You must throw out the pot of milk." The woman was astonished. She said, But
Rabbi it was the milk that fell into the soup!". "Yes" the rabbi said "exactly! It was deffinitely the milk's fault."
The reason the story is funny is that we cannot apply moral right and wrong in the adjudication of ritual law. Halacha is not about fault and fairness, at least not in regards to Torah prohibitions. But that is not to say the Torah does not take into account issues of fairness and fault. On the contrary at the outset of this week's parsha we have example of just such a law built on doing the fair!
The Torah provides us with an interesting scenario to reveal a law of inheritance.
If a man is married to two wives, one whom he loves and the other whom he despises, the Torah tells him that he may not give the extra portion of inheritance reserved for the eldest son to the son born to the beloved wife at the expense of the true first born, a child of the wife he hates. He must give the double share to the true 'b'chor', first born, even if he is not the child of the woman he loves.
We may well ask what is the Torah teaching us here? To tell us the first born always gets the extra share no matter the father's personal preference, we don't need the whole story of the two wives! The Torah seems to want to tell us something beyond the particular law of inheritance and impart a value, one we can only glean from the story imparted.
Moreover the Seforno and other commentators raise an interesting question here. They wonder, in light of the Torah law, how is it that Yaakov gave a double portion to Yosef, the son of the beloved wife, Rachel, and took it a way from Re'uvain, the wife of the less loved wife, Leah. His actions seem contrary to the command here given. Even though he lived prior to the giving of the Torah, we are told that Yaakov anticipated its laws and already kept them. Why here did he do otherwise?
The Seforno answers our last question by making an important distinction between the case the Torah gives and the story of Yaakov and the birthright. The Torah indeed forbids taking away the inheritance of the first born under all circumstances.
But the case it gives is one where depriving the first born of his share would not only be a ritual violation of the laws of inheritance but a moral lapse.
The fact that the first born here is the son of the despised wife is not his fault.
To take away his share would not only be a ritual violation but a moral sin. The son should not pay the price of the enmity between his father and mother!
In the case of Yaakov, indeed he took away the double portion from Re'uvain but not because he was the child of the less loved wife, but because of his sin and personal lapses. The Torah already had told us how Re'uvain had inappropriately rearranged his father's conjugal bed after the death of Rachel. That Re'uvain lost the 'b'chora' was his doing and his alone.
While that too is forbidden to us now once the Torah law was given, meaning, we cannot deprive the first born of his rightful inheritance because of a lapse in judgement or some wrongful act. Nonetheless, Yaakov did not violate the moral intent of the Torah, only its ritual law since he did not take something from Re'uvain for which he was not at fault.
Once we recognize that the law of the two wives and the son born of the despised is teaching us a value as well as a ritual law of inheritance, we can take important personal lessons. How often do we dump our anger, frustration, impatience where it does not belong? How many times have we taken hostile feelings we feel for one person and displayed the resentment to someone entirely not at fault?
Parents bring angry feelings generated at the work place home and show impatience and worse to their children. Husbands and wives put on one another displaced resentments and negative feelings that neither has earned but somehow must absorb.
Over and over we get angry at institutions, perhaps a whole Shule to the point of leaving or withdrawing because we are upset at the rabbi or the gabbai. Does the organization deserve our anger and its consequence?
If we look at our lives carefully we will find that so much of the negative feelings we share are directed at the wrong people. Our attitudes confuse the other as much as ourselves. They cannot really understand why?
The Torah this week is teaching us that if we have a problem with our spouse take it up with him/her. Don't make the children pay the price! And that is true with all our feelings of frustration, disappointment and resentment. We need to take our feelings to the people who engendered them in us. We need to direct our emotional responses back to the source that brought them about!
"It's not my fault" may not be a complaint the pot of chicken soup may make to escape being tossed as unkosher. But it is a legitimate complaint when others we love or are responsible to feel unduly put upon by our behaviors.
Taking our feeling back to their source is a good paradigm for living. It is a way of being that would surely engender the blessng and gratitude of others, who so often feel, correctly, that they are not at fault.