One of the essential questions that we as Jews must ask ourselves is, what are the values that guide us? Aside from rituals and Jewish law, how does our textual framework teach us how to live? What are the values we want our children to carry? How can we use the values expressed in our tradition to live better in this world?
Why are these questions so important? Because we see from demographic data that while there is a hardening on the theological right with respect to living a halakhic lifestyle, with ever-more-stringent approaches to Jewish law, the non-Orthodox world is drifting away from that traditional mode of Jewish living. One does not need to see survey data to know that fewer of us observe Shabbat traditionally, fewer of us are showing up for daily prayer, fewer of us are keeping some form of kashrut, fewer of us are marrying fellow Jews, etc.
And yet, most of us are proudly Jewish, acknowledging on some level our Jewish heritage and at least some of our Jewish traditions. (There is no simhah today, so most of us in the room are regulars – people who are committed to some form of traditional Jewish observance, including tefillah / prayer. But you’d probably all be surprised by how many Jews I hear telling me about how they are proud to be Jewish, love our tradition, are committed to raising Jewish families and to being part of a community, but just have no interest in or understand being in synagogue for services.)
Given that many of us want to maintain some kind of connection to Judaism even as we disconnect from Jewish observance, one answer is that we have to focus on the Jewish values that move us.
What are some of these values?
- Doing for others in need
- Hakhnasat orehim / welcoming guests
Ahavat hinnam /
- Community, and all it suggests
With help from the Judaism Unbound podcast, I recently came across an interesting article by Dr. Vanessa Ochs, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, entitled “Ten Jewish Sensibilities.” It appeared in the journal Sh’ma in 2003. In it, Dr. Ochs identifies ten Jewish values which, she proposes, many Jews draw on in their daily lives, even if they do not practice any of the ritual aspects of Judaism. I do not need to list them all here, but they include such basic principles as teshuvah / return (she translates as “turning”), tiqqun olam / repairing the world, shelom bayit / maintaining peaceful relationships, and so forth.
I would like to draw your attention to two of these sensibilities: top of the list, havdalah – literally separation, but understood here as making distinctions in time and situations. That is, acknowledging that Jews create holy spaces in time, not places or people.
Number 10 on the list is zekhut avot, recalling the good deeds and attributes and acting upon the merits of those who came before us. We’ll come back to these in a few minutes.
Now, of course these values come, as does all of Jewish life, from the Jewish bookshelf. Just as we know that we must drink four cups of wine at a Pesah seder or light the Hanukkah candles from left to right from our ancient literature, so too do we understand that eliminating oppression or questioning authority are Jewish values gleaned from sources in the Torah, Talmud, midrash, codes, and so forth.
But what happens when values that are apparent in those sources seem to contradict values that we hold dear? Let’s take a look at a passage from Toledot.
Open the humash. Gen. 27:19-27 (98, 156). This is where Rivqah has prepared some meat for Yitzhaq and put an animal hide on Ya’aqov’s arms in order to deceive his father and receive the blessing that he intends for Esav.
יט וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ–עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי–בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ.
|19 And Jacob said unto his father: ‘I am Esau thy first-born; I have done what you have told me. Arise, sit and eat of my venison, that your soul may bless me.’|
כ וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-בְּנוֹ, מַה-זֶּה מִהַרְתָּ לִמְצֹא בְּנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי הִקְרָה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְפָנָי.
|20 And Isaac said unto his son: ‘How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?’ And he said: ‘Because the LORD thy God sent me good speed.’|
כא וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, גְּשָׁה-נָּא וַאֲמֻשְׁךָ בְּנִי: הַאַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו, אִם-לֹא.
|21 And Isaac said unto Jacob: ‘Come near, please, that I may feel you, my son, whether you be my very son Esau or not.’|
כב וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב אֶל-יִצְחָק אָבִיו, וַיְמֻשֵּׁהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב, וְהַיָּדַיִם, יְדֵי עֵשָׂו.
|22 And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said: ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’|
כג וְלֹא הִכִּירוֹ–כִּי-הָיוּ יָדָיו כִּידֵי עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, שְׂעִרֹת; וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ.
|23 And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.|
כד וַיֹּאמֶר, אַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו; וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנִי.
|24 And he said: ‘Are you my very son Esau?’ And he said: ‘I am.’|
כה וַיֹּאמֶר, הַגִּשָׁה לִּי וְאֹכְלָה מִצֵּיד בְּנִי–לְמַעַן תְּבָרֶכְךָ, נַפְשִׁי; וַיַּגֶּשׁ-לוֹ, וַיֹּאכַל, וַיָּבֵא לוֹ יַיִן, וַיֵּשְׁתְּ.
|25 And he said: ‘Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son’s venison, that my soul may bless thee.’ And he brought it near to him, and he did eat; and he brought him wine, and he drank.|
כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, יִצְחָק אָבִיו: גְּשָׁה-נָּא וּשְׁקָה-לִּי, בְּנִי.
|26 And his father Isaac said unto him: ‘Come near now, and kiss me, my son.’|
כז וַיִּגַּשׁ, וַיִּשַּׁק-לוֹ, וַיָּרַח אֶת-רֵיחַ בְּגָדָיו, וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי, כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ ה’.
|27 And he came near, and kissed him. And he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which God has blessed.|
Superficially, this passage does not read so well to me. It highlights Ya’aqov’s deception, and this is in fact a theme that runs through Ya’aqov’s life (e.g. the lentil stew, Gen. 29:34; his marriage to Leah and Rahel, Gen. 29:21-30; his sons’ selling Joseph and lying to their father about his death, Gen. 37:29-35). Although the blessings seem good, at least to an ancient audience, the means by which Ya’aqov achieves them are certainly not.
Most of the commentaries seek to excuse Ya’aqov – they argue that he was fulfilling God’s destiny; that Esav was truly evil; that Yitzhaq was not only actually blind, but also blind to the fact that his younger son was really the good son, and so forth. But one midrash, from Bereshit Rabba, actually suggests that when Ya’aqov goes to fetch a few goats from the flock so his mother can prepare them (27:14), he does so “under duress, bent, and weeping.”
יב אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי, וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ; וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה, וְלֹא בְרָכָה.
|12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a mocker; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.’|
יג וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ, עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי; אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, וְלֵךְ קַח-לִי.
|13 And his mother said unto him: ‘Upon me be your curse, my son; only heed my voice, and go fetch me them.’|
יד וַיֵּלֶךְ, וַיִּקַּח, וַיָּבֵא, לְאִמּוֹ; וַתַּעַשׂ אִמּוֹ מַטְעַמִּים, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהֵב אָבִיו.
|14 And he went, and fetched, and brought them to his mother; and his mother made savory food such as his father loved.|
So while the hermeneutic conversation, the discourse of rabbinic interpretation surrounding this passage in general supports Ya’aqov and Rivqah and the whole operation, there is in fact at least one voice, echoing across the ages that suggests that deception is not, in fact, a value we should support. And I think that most of us agree with that opinion, despite the conspiracy to defraud Yitzhaq.
So that brings us back to Vanessa Ochs’ Jewish sensibilities. On the one hand, we aim to emulate our ancestors and follow their lead based on their merits: zekhut avot. On the other, we also know that nobody in the Jewish canon is without fault, that they are all exceedingly human characters. Thus we must draw distinction (havdalah, if you will) between having the means justify the ends, as in this case, vs. always behaving in an upright, honest way. Ya’aqov, according to the midrash, knows that what he is doing is wrong, and we do too. So we can acknowledge and learn from this story, even as we concede that Ya’aqov’s outright deception of his father is reprehensible.
While the Torah itself may suggest that the end may justify the means, the rabbinic lens, the midrash, disagrees. And yet both of these ideas sit on the Jewish bookshelf in the same corner of the whole panoply of human behavior described by our tradition.
The lesson that we may draw from this is that havdalah is not just what is recited on Saturday night (the separation of Shabbat from weekday), it is not only about the division of time between holy and ordinary. It is an essential tool in how we relate Torah to who we are and the choices we make. Real wisdom comes from making distinctions. And we do that very well as Jews.
And to come back to where we started, the greater Jewish value that we must teach and live is discernment, perhaps a more refined version of havdalah: digging into our collected body of wisdom to extract the best way to handle a situation, given all the factors in play. I think that if we can relate that to the next generation, we will have a rosy Jewish future.