Friday, November 5, 2010

Purity is over-rated! On leaving “moral home”: Vayetze

I found the Australian Peter Slipper drama really interesting but I am not game to comment on that. More broadly it is an opportunity to discuss  questions about integrity. Here are my thoughts.

To compromise my beliefs and values, even for a good aim is wrong, is dangerous and would destroy me. Keeping faith with those who trust me is a matter of the highest priority and a religious obligation. Yet, there are low-priority spiritual preferences and ideals that I  think I should sacrifice. I was raised on the Chabad2 idea of leaving our spiritual home neighbourhood to reach out to less religious Jews. In my current role, I had a school principal tell me that  she would be more impressed with our message of harmony3  if “it wasn't a business”, clearly if no money was involved our moral message would be purer, for the small number of people who hear it. However, by accepting money for my educational work, I am able to devote all the time I would need to spend on feeding my family to the noble cause I care about. Less pure, but more practical and more benefit created.

Jacob, the wholesome man, dragged “crying and bent” by his mother into his first act of deception, leaves the holy land, his holy parents' home and ventures out to badlands of Aram. First he stops and prays4. He surrounds his head with rocks, either to protect himself practically, or it is suggested to set hard boundaries around his mind, to protect it from getting too involved with matters threatening his spiritual purity5. Then he dreams, of divine angels, and wakes up to declare, wow! God was in this place, and I did not know it. He learns to find God in this most unlikely of places6. He further tries to protect himself, making a deal with God and erecting a tangible rock monument of his commitment. Then he plunges in.

His step is light, he is said to be carrying his legs7, confident in God's protection, clear in his purpose, spirit in the pilots seat, unlike people facing uncertainty where their “legs carry them”.

He puts up a good fight. On arrival he speaks out against shepherds who seem to be cheating their employer, “the day is still long, it is not time to gather the flocks, give your sheep some drink and go take your sheep to pasture8.” Overflowing with enthusiasm, he works for 7 years for the right to marry the beautiful woman he loves, but it feels like a few days in his love for her9. The shine starts to come off, when he is duped by his uncle Laban into marrying Leah, the sister of his beloved. He is then given a verbal kick by his cruel uncle/now father-in-law, “it is not done this way in our place, to give the younger before the older”. Laban's implication is that 'we are not like you, the younger brother, who usurps his older brothers Esau's blessings', we are better than that 10. Jacob must work another 7 years to marry Rachel in addition to Leah.

We are told that Leah was “hated11” by Jacob, perhaps he suspected her motives in deceiving him when he saw signs of barrenness in her.12 His anger, eventually flares up with Rachel after she is jealous of her sister having children, and she demands “give me children, otherwise I will die”. A 13th century commentator, suggests that Rachel talked “in the way of longing of beloved women to scare him with her death13”. Jacob tells his wives, Laban's daughters, that he was swindled by their father Laban “changing the work agreement ten times”. He engages in creative practices to try get a fair deal, and eventually runs away from Laban, who pursues him and heaps more criticism on Jacob, “what did you do?!...leading my daughters as captives of the sword14.

Yet, Jacob, later named Israel, succeeds in the end, raising a family with 13 children loyal to his values and way of life, he even keeps faith with Laban whom he serves loyally and with great integrity, as he tells Laban "by day scorching heat consumed me, and frost by night; my sleep drifted from my eyes" in his work caring for Laban's sheep. Jacob ends his life with his best days surrounded by great grandchildren and his descendants are known as the “children of Israel”.

"It is not the critic who counts:
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles
or where the doer of deeds could have done better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,
who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again,
because there is no effort without error or shortcoming,
but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions,
who spends himself for a worthy cause;
who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement,
and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls
who knew neither victory nor defeat."
Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

2 Chabad, is a Jewish religious movement and tradition that encourages adherents to leave religious enclaves for the purpose of promoting Torah generally, it's spiritual teachings and related practices.
4 Rashi on Genesis 28:11
5 The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi MM Schneerson (1964), Likutei Sichot Volume 1, Vayetze p.61.
6 Michelle, M. Parent of a girl with Cerebral Palsy, in remarks celebrating her daughters successful Bat Mitzvah.
7 Genesis 29:1, Rashi and Seforno
8 Genesis 29:7
9 Genesis 29:18
10 Nechama Lebovitz
11 Genesis 29:31, following literal text, Oonkelus, Ohr Hachayim, Seforno, Targum Yonatan “she was not loved”
12 Seforno
13 Ramban (born 1194- 1270) on Genesis 30:1
14 Genesis 31:26

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