Earlier this week, we noted the surprising comments of the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 76:9), cited in Rashi’s commentary to Parashat Vayishlach (32:23), relating that Yaakov hid his daughter, Dina, during his reunion with his brother, Esav. Yaakov feared that Esav would desire his niece if he saw her, and so Yaakov concealed her in a chest where she would not be visible. Even more astonishingly, the Midrash writes that God criticized Yaakov for denying Esav the possibility of marrying Dina, as Dina could have perhaps exerted a positive influence on Esav. As we mentioned, many commentators struggled to explain this Midrashic passage, and to understand why Yaakov would be blamed for not wanting his daughter to marry an evil man like Esav.
Rabbeinu Ovadya of Bartenura, in his Torah commentary, suggests that Yaakov was criticized not for concealing Dina per se, but rather for his underlying motivation. Startlingly, Rabbeinu Ovadya of Bartenura asserts that Yaakov knew that Dina had the potential of influencing Esav and triggering a process of growth and improvement – and this is precisely what he wished to avoid. Yaakov, according to this approach, specifically did not want Esav to repent and become a righteous individual. He feared that if Esav did undergo this change, then he – Yaakov – might then forfeit the special blessings granted to him by his father. Thus, according to Rabbeinu Ovadya, Yaakov was punished because his intention was not to protect Dina, but rather to protect himself from the potential challenge to his stature that Esav would pose if he had been inspired to repent.
While it certainly seems difficult to attribute such sinister motives to Yaakov, nevertheless, this reading of the Midrash is significant in drawing our attention to the peculiar kind of gratification that we sometimes experience upon see other people’s moral or religious failings. While few, if any, of us would go so far as to wish for others not to repent or grow, we might be guilty of enjoying the feeling of superiority that results from observing those who do not meet our standards. Just as, according to Rabbeinu Ovadya, Yaakov preferred that Esav remain sinful, so that he could retain his status of superiority, we might similarly at times feel gratified by the flaws and failures of other people, which allow us to feel superior. This reading of the Midrash thus teaches us that we should never feel threatened by the successes and achievements of others, which we should always wish for and celebrate. We must strive to be the best version of ourselves and maximize our full potential, and sincerely wish for all other people to do the same, fully cognizant of the fact that the successes and failures of others say absolutely nothing about the extent to which we have achieved the most we are capable of achieving, and should thus have no bearing whatsoever on our self-esteem and sense of self-worth.