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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: 13

(10) Anonymous, November 22, 2015 1:25 AM

Imposing morality on others

In response to the midrash on Jacob admonishing the Shepherds. We live in an age when major religions are imposing their values on others. The most recent and awful example is ISIS when it declares that the morality/religion of Islam is the only true way and all others must adhere or die. So where are the boundaries for Jews in imposing our "morality" on others? There has to be a distinction between the kind of morality that makes us try to save the person who is about to jump off the bridge vs imposing our ideas of morality (e.g. don't get an abortion" )on others. I think that Rabbi Rosenblatt should have gone into more detail about when Jews should NOT chose to impose their idea of morality on others. Thanks.

(9) bvw, November 19, 2015 10:04 PM

Also show you're on their side

Rebuke is meaningless without a meaningful connection between the rebuker and rebukee. Jacob moved that stone for them, and the waters poured out for all their sheep. The water was a meaningful connection, the stone moving just a feat of animal strength. But maybe not. Levers were around before Archimedes, had the shepherds wanted to they likely could have moved the rock. So what was the real inertia, the stone or their inaction?

Perhaps Jacob just unmasked their self-delusion. Maybe that was the stone.

(8) Oscar Abraham, November 19, 2015 8:41 PM

Learn something new everyday

I've been around for almost 68 years and never heard this before.

Thank you.

(7) Howard Sanshuck, November 19, 2015 5:38 PM

Great Job Jacob!

I am a non Torah Observant Jew but have to admit that I totally agree with what Jacob did. I do attend services on
Saturday at an Orthodox Synagogue. There are many good things in the written Torah (Five Books of Moses) but a few that I really don't like. One is God's commandment to Moses to kill all the Midionites. Another is the bad treatment that the Egyptians suffered at the hands of God which was totally wrong. Nevertheless I buy into helping others and not minding ones own business when wrongs are being committed.

Shoshana-Jerusalem, November 19, 2015 8:14 PM

G-d knows best

G-d, our Creator, created His world in the best way possible, He does not make mistakes. His Torah is the Manufacture's guide on how to run this very complicated machine called " life."

The Midians and the Egyptians, as well as every one of us get exactly what we deserve.

I do understand your problem with relating to all this, though. Because our human, finite minds cannot possibly grasp the Divine.

But our commentaries, Chazel, shed a lot of light on these complicated passages.

I'm sure that there are some very fine people in your Orthodox synagogue and you needn't hesitate to ask one of them to study these commentaries with you. They would surely love to.

Best wishes and a lot of success.

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