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: 4

(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:).....

(1) Anonymous, December 5, 2008 12:29 AM

when striving to be moral is something "shameful"

I receive treatment at a public mental health facilty. This entails attending groups, classes and therapy with secular people. This is challenging for a frum yid because the fundamental culture there is moral relativism. Your article highlighted some issues I was dealing with there: I once shared how difficult it was for me to log my time for work because I felt it was is my duty to deduct time I surfed the internet. I was told that most employees do this, its normal and expected. Ths is not what Yaakov Avinu would have told me. Then in a group someone was going on and on about her infactuation with a married man. People did challenge her about it, but only because it wouldn't be healthy for her -- but not because adultery is immoral. To raise the issue of morality does need to be done tactfully though so that the other person can hear the tochah. We also have the mitzvah of giving the benefit of the doubt. However recognizing and judging immorality should not be considered shameful nor sinful.

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