Vayechi: The Suspension of Morality

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 5 months ago

      In this week’s parashah, Yaakov gives each of his children a very personal blessing—except to Shimon and Levi, who share a single blessing, which sounds, on the first reading, an awful lot more like a curse: “Instruments of violence are their means of attaining gain. May my soul not enter into their council; may my honor not join their assembly; for in their anger they murdered men, and willingly they lamed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their outrage, for it is cruel. I will divide them in Yaakov and scatter them in Israel.”[1]

      The only instance of which we know from the Torah when Shimon and Levi killed anybody is in Shechem, where they were defending the honor of their sister Dinah. The end seems perfectly noble, but Yaakov objects to the means so strongly that nearly a century later, upon his deathbed, this is what he thinks of when he thinks of his sons Shimon and Levi; and he says they and their descendants are unacceptable as heads of state.

      “It is most significant,” writes Rav S.R. Hirsch, “that at this point, where the foundations of the Jewish people are set down, a curse is laid upon any demonstration of force that runs counter to justice and morality, even if it is intended for the common good. All other states and nations have adopted the principle that any action is legitimate as long as it serves the interest of the state. Acts of cunning and violence that would be punished by ostracism or execution if practiced by an individual for selfish gain are rewarded with laurels and civic honors if they are committed for what is alleged to be the welfare of the state. The other nations assert that the laws of morality are applicable only to private affairs and that the only law recognized in politics and diplomacy is that of national self-interest. In our text, by contrast, the last will and testament upon which the Jewish people was founded pronounces a curse upon all acts of cunning and violence, even if they are committed for the most legitimate interests of the nation, and it sets down for all time the doctrine that even in public life and in the promotion of the common good not only the ends but also the means used to attain these ends must be clean.”

      To us, living in galut, this concept can seem so foreign that it is difficult to even think about; we typically suspend judging the morality of any organization that goes by the name of “government.” If muggers point guns at our heads and demand our money, we call it robbery; if mafiosi stop by our businesses to notify us that they will be coming by monthly for a certain fee, and will destroy the business if we fail to pay it, we call it racketeering. Yet when—not if, but when—the government threatens to put us in a cage unless we pay them, we call it “taxes,” and suspend any moral judgment.

      When people threaten us with violence unless we pull over our vehicle, and then threaten us with further violence unless we pay them, we view this as perfectly normal, even as we all get nervous and paranoid when we see them in our rear-view mirrors. If people we saw as “private individuals” demanded that we disclose to them all our financial transactions, where our children go to school, what kinds of windows we use in our homes, or what kind of encryption we use on our phones, we would likely see such people as pathological; as soon as they claim the mantle of “government,” then whatever they do, be it violence (“murdering men”) or confiscation or destruction of property (“laming oxen”) must be for our own good, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. R.J. Rummel, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, estimates that these people—people claiming the mantle of “government”—on average, killed 7,178 people worldwide per day the entire duration of the 20th century; this is a conservative estimate and the true figure is likely much higher. But we in the modern West believe that we are past that; we live in a different type of society with different types of people.

      Yaakov continues with the blessing to Yehudah, where we first see Mashiach with a donkey[2]. “Throughout Scripture,” writes Rav Hirsch, “the donkey, as a beast of burden, symbolizes peaceful prosperity.” Yeshayahu expands on how Mashiach is to operate: “A bruised reed will not break and a dim wick will not go out.”[3] Rather, לאמת יוציא משפט. We must have enough respect for people that if we believe something to be right, we make the effort to persuade them, and trust that if we speak the truth, they will be receptive. Force, Yaakov explains, is a deeply immoral, dehumanizing shortcut, no matter what our ends and no matter what we call ourselves.

      It is fairly conventional wisdom in Judaism that how we interact in our marriage is a model for how we interact with God[4]; yet how we interact with God can serve as a model for how we interact with other people as well. When we daven, we cannot force God; we can only respectfully ask, and argue our case. God, in turn, created us to have free will; He now gives us halachah, but does not enforce our adherence to it. Let us observe this mutual respect when davening, and let us add to our davening a request for the same mutual respect in our interactions with all those around us.

      [1] Breishit 49:5-7
      [2] ibid. v. 11
      [3] Yeshayahu 42:3

      [4] Hence Shir haShirim is both about how men relate to women and how we relate to God

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