Straight Talk Parshat Vayetzei: The Morality Business
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Vayetzei(Genesis 28:10-32:3)

The Morality Business

In this week's Torah portion, Jacob arrives in Haran and meets some shepherds. He notices that they are sitting around chatting and immediately admonishes them: If you are working for someone, then you are being paid to tend that person's sheep, not to sit and talk. And if you are self-employed, you should get on with life. Either way, you shouldn't be sitting around doing nothing.

It turns out that these men were waiting to water their sheep, and could not do so until there were enough of them to remove a rock from over the well. Jacob single-handedly moves the rock and allows them to get on with shepherding.

It seems more than a little strange that Jacob, for whom these shepherds are complete strangers, immediately launches into a critique of their values. Surely this is none of his business. They are not his sheep, not his shepherds, and this is not even his country. Who is he to show up and tell them how to behave?

The Sages elucidate from this a fundamental Jewish idea.

We live in a world whose motto is: Live and let live. The way another person conducts himself is his own business. As long as he's not bothering you, let him get on with it. It's none of your business to tell others what to do.

This is not at all a Jewish value. Judaism says: Live, and also help others to live more meaningful, fulfilled and happy lives. 'Live and let live' is an attitude without concern for others. Let people destroy their own lives, as long as they don't bother me in the process. Someone who cares about other people, will not 'let live,' if that living is self-destructive or harmful to anyone. In the same way as no one would allow someone to jump off a building without trying to talk him down, so too, Judaism says, that no one should allow another person to waste his life without trying to educate him differently.

Far from being "none of his business," the men at the well were precisely Jacob's business. Infusing society with ethics and values was the "family business" that Jacob had inherited from his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. It may not have been a public company, but nonetheless it was a business that eventually changed the way the world thinks. (The world's two largest religions eventually became its major shareholders.)

For we Jews, morality is still very much the family business. It's not enough to be moral ourselves. When we see immorality, it is also our business to try to educate - as Jacob did 4,000 years ago with the shepherds of Haran.

Published: November 29, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 6

(4) Andrew, November 27, 2014 6:51 AM

Aitza and tochocha milos but must be lo toeles

Yes, give moral guidance, but "show, don't tell." Jaakov Avenu was a doer before a talker, and he taught by example: he didn't just talk, but walked the walk. His precepts were not mere words, lip service (which would be cheap), but fulfilled by moving the rock. The burden of giving aitzas is so heavy it must be done purely l'shem Shemayim or not at all -- as Jaakov Avemu's mosirus nefesh in lifting the rock showed. Moving the rock showed he was no mere talker. A pontificating busy-body likes to shower others with his lofty sermonizing, but too often violates "aitza she'on hagenes" and "ana-as devorim" in his zeal to steer others. Such a person motivated by ga'ava and ta'ava (for kovod) and other NOGIAS is doing an avera, when it is not l'shem Shemayim. This is why Pirkei Avos tells us to run from rabbonos and kovod: seeking these are ta'avas and nogias. Jaakov Avenu proves he has the milo of aitza Tov by being mosiris nefesh in moving the stove. Don't "talk the talk" (as Jaakov Avenu admonished his 'idle talkers") unless you walk the walk, and even then only if you have no nogia or ga'ava and shun kovod. If you seek kovod or are a Ba'al Ga'ava, or also in violation of Pirkei Avos use the Torah in service of wordly ends (and make both a spade and a crown of Torah), maybe put your money where your mouth is, pipe down, and "live and let live." If you are truly the stone-moving (a person of great ma'asim like Jaakov Avinu was, a surpassing Baal Chesed such that you would water camels as readily as verbally celebrate Rivke's virtue) type and not a mere cheerleader or motivation coach for those who do, give aitzas commensurate with your ma'asim. Don't be an idle schmoozer-busy body. Be a rock mover first, talker second. Better still, let others be inspired just by your actions, and let others inspire others by reporting on your deeds, which as it happens you should do modestly.

(3) jonny leiwy, November 8, 2010 9:59 PM


what an incredible article. I have never noticed this point every time I have come across this verse. thank you for bringing it to light so well.

(2) Scott, November 28, 2009 3:34 PM

Thank you

At times I feel alone in speaking up. The author and the above comment speak to "moral relativity" which is killing western Civilization. I am glad to see it described as Jewish value particularly because my Jewish friends are the worst perpetrators of "moral relativity", whether its abortion or gay marriage.

Gary, November 22, 2012 5:45 AM

It Depends...

Agree with the comments and major point of the article, but still very important to consider the context when speaking up. Will the people be receptive to the message at all? Woud it be better to wait till you know the shepherds better than admonishing them so soon? How will my comments affect the overall relationship with people? Again, I agree with the premise of assuming responsibility for others, but HOW and WHEN we do it is just as important. I'm assuming a great man such as Jacob knew what he was doing:).....

Joe, November 27, 2014 4:27 PM

Reply to Gary

The early commentators address your question as to why Jacob didn't "wait till he knew the shepherds better than admonishing them so soon". They explain that this itself is a lesson in admonishing others. Jacob opened his conversation with "My Brothers". When you address someone as "my brother", and you show that you have their best interests at heart - then you can admonish. Only THEN will they be receptive to the message. Otherwise, your comments will, at best, fall on deaf ears.

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