A month ago (Dec 14) was Shabbat Parshat Vayechi and the Bat Mitzvah of my daughter, Shifra. In case anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be there is interested, here is the Dvar Torah I shared with her:
This week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayechi, tells us about the brachot — the blessings— which Yaakov gives to each of his sons before his death. Each of the sons receives a unique bracha and the lessons we can learn from them are rich and varied.
I’d like to examine the bracha Yaakov gives to Dan. In 48:16, Yaakov proclaims that, “דן ידין עמו” - that “Dan will judge his nation,” based on the literal meaning of Dan’s name: the Hebrew verb “dan" means "to adjudicate," a judgment is a "din" and a judge is called a "dayan.”
The bracha implies that, in some sense, Yaakov’s son Dan —and, through him, his descendants, the entire tribe of Dan— possesses a middah of din, a unique character trait of justice. It is for this reason that the tribe of Dan produces judges for Am Yisrael, notable among them is Shimshon, Samson, who judges the Jewish people for 20 years with a sense of fairness he must have inherited from his great-grandfather, Dan, the son of Yaakov.
Our verse makes an appearance in the Talmud, in the tractate of Pesachim (4a). The Gemara there tells us of an man who would always “דונו דיני אמרי” - who was known for always saying “Judge my case.” Rashi explains that, whenever this man would have a disagreement with someone, he would say, “Judge my case in court.” The Gemara concludes:
"שמע מינה מדן קאתי, דכתיב (בראשית מט, טז) דן ידין עמו"
In other words, every time this man had an argument with someone, his response was, “So sue me. Take me to court, if you dare.” Because his immediate reaction was to seek his day in court, the Gemara concludes that he must have been member of the Tribe of Dan.
This is difficult to reconcile with the nice things we were saying about Dan just a moment ago. The Gemara’s depiction of this man’s litigious tendencies doesn’t seem complementary; if anything, it seems the opposite: negative, critical and condemning.
When Yaakov said, “Dan will judge his nation” he was referring to a beautiful middah —a positive character attribute—of the tribe of Dan — his sense of fairness and justice. However, here the Gemara implies that Dan’s attribute is bad, by assuming that this fellow, who would always say, “sue me” or “I’ll see you in court,” must have been from the tribe of Dan. How do we reconcile this contradiction?
I think this Gemara teaches us an important lesson about character traits (middot). We speak about a person having good character traits — being honest and humble, not losing his temper, not being haughty. Why are they referred to as “middot” (a word which literally means “measurements”)?
An underlying principle of character traits is that they have to be measured. Why is there no commandment in the Torah that a person should have good middot? Perhaps because there is no such thing as a character trait that is all bad or all good.
Instead, our challenge is to use various character traits in the proper measure. Sometimes it is appropriate for a person to have a ‘measure’ of anger, and sometimes a person needs to have a ‘measure’ of arrogance.
Where we get into trouble is if a character trait gets out of hand. This Gemara is telling us is that Dan had a tremendous sense of din (justice). However, this trait that the founder of the tribe had in his genes went haywire in the fellow mentioned in Pesachim. He took the ‘measure’ of justice too far. His sense of justice was too strict. There was never compromise. It was always ‘Din' — “See you in Court!”
Now, Shifra: being a Bat Mitzvah means that you are now your own person. You’re a full-fledged member of Am Yisrael, with all the commensurate rights and responsibilities. From now on, the actions you take, the decisions you make, the mitzvot you perform and the opportunities you let go by… they are all on your scoreboard now.
Your mother and I, along with your grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, teachers and friends —all of the people gathered here tonight to celebrate with you— we have all done our best to guide and teach you, mold and shape you, support and nurture you, cajole and convince you to always try, do and be your very, very best.
You are blessed with some remarkable middot. You have a great sense of humor, a generous spirit, an optimistic attitude, a quick and beautiful smile. These, among many others, are your middot… and the measure of how you use them define who you are.
Dan’s bracha teaches us that any middah, even the best, if not applied in its proper measure and in its proper context, can go bad. Our bracha for you, as you become a Bat Mitzvah is:
May you always be funny, but never at the expense of others.
May you always be generous, but not to your own detriment.
May you always be optimistic, but never unrealistic.
May you always be happy, but never too easily satisfied.