Bereshit: “Undeserved Favoritism?”

With this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8), we begin a new cycle of Torah readings. No wonder that we somehow feel that the new year has finally really begun. It is also the beginning of a new academic year for many of us. No wonder that “newness” is in the air.

For the past month or so, we have been consumed by the range of emotions evoked by our religious holiday observances. We’ve traversed the days of judgement and penitence and have paraded through joyous and festive days as well. Many of us, however, are still haunted by the question, “Did I pass the trials of the days of judgement? Do I really deserve a ‘good and sweet’ new year?”

Thankfully, there is a verse in this week’s Torah portion that can provide us hope and comfort. It is a verse that seems to indicate that, at least sometimes, the Almighty favors us although we haven’t earned His favor. Strange as it seems, He “plays favorites” even with those who don’t deserve such favoritism.

Allow me to prove my point by referring you to the very last verse in this week’s parsha. The preceding verses declare the Lord’s regret that He created mankind and His decision to “blot out from the earth the men whom I created.” We then read, “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”

The Hebrew for “found favor” is matsa chen. Did Noah deserve chen? Did he deserve to be favored? The answer lies in an understanding of the word chen. For this, we must turn to another biblical passage, this time in Exodus 33:19. There, we find ourselves shocked by the Lord’s own words: “I will favor those whom I pleased to favor and show compassion to those to whom I am pleased to show compassion.”

This is interpreted by the Sages of the Talmud (see Berakhot 7a) to mean, “I will favor those whom I choose to favor, even if they are not fit to deserve My favor!”

Do we dare conclude that the Lord arbitrarily favors whomever He pleases, at His whim? Do humans have the right to favor whomever they please, without rhyme or reason, even if that means favoring those who are not truly entitled to such favor?

To answer the latter question, let us consider the observation of the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yochanan (Sotah 47a). I paraphrase his keen insight: “There are three examples of people who display chen, i.e., who show favor even when that favor is not objectively deserved. One is the chen that one harbors for one’s own hometown even if that town is a slum; another is the chen that a loving husband shows to his wife even if she is less than perfect; and the third is the chen that a consumer retains for an item he purchased even if that item is deficient.”

Chen, then, is favor which is bestowed, even when it is not fully deserved. Thus, for example, when the Kohanim bless us in the synagogue, they recite these words: “May the Lord shine His countenance upon you and show you chen (vichuneka).” The Sifre translates chen in this verse as matnat chinam, an undeserved gift.

So too does the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) comment on our verse at the very end of this week’s parsha: “The heavenly decree to deluge the earth initially included Noah, but although he was undeserving, he found chen in the eyes of the Lord.”

One particularly insightful commentator, however, will have none of this. I refer to Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, the eighteenth-century author of the work Ohr HaChaim, who does not wish to define chen as unearned favor. Rather, he suggests that there are virtuous behaviors which are performed so simply and so modestly that they are not seen as such. They are taken for granted by the observer and even by the virtuous individual himself. These actions seem petty and trivial to us mortals, but to the Almighty, they are shining and glorious deeds, deserving of the highest rewards.

The author of Ohr HaChaim maintains that there are several, although few, such mitzvos that we take lightly but which are of great spiritual significance. There is no explicit list of these mitzvot, or else we would concentrate on fulfilling them, and only them, to the exclusion of all other mitzvot.

Noah was thus an individual who seems quite ordinary in the eyes of others, but the Lord viewed his ordinary deeds with divine eyes, and in His eyes, Noah deserved to be spared.

All of us can be comforted, then, that although we may often judge ourselves to be undeserving, we are unduly harsh in our self-judgement. For surely there is much that we’ve done in the way of charitable and otherwise praiseworthy deeds that we have underrated but which merited inclusion in the divine list of deeds deserving chen.

We pray that the Almighty “plays favorites” with us and judges us less harshly than we sometimes judge ourselves, and grants us a good and sweet year, beginning with Parshat Bereshit.