‘Who Stands By His/Her Word, Even To His/Her Disadvantage?’ Toldot

One approach in life is that anything that you can get away with, is “legal,” or you manage to negotiate for, is acceptable.  A second approach is that of the Psalmist:

Adonai, who may sojourn in Your Tent,

Who may dwell on Your Holy Mountain?

One who lives without blame,

Who does what is right,

And in his/her heart acknowledges the truth;

Whose tongue is not given to evil;

Who has never done harm to his/her fellow,

Or borne reproach for (his/her acts toward) his/her neighbor;

For whom a contemptible person is abhorrent,

But who honors those who fear Adonai;

Who stands by his/her oath, even to his/her hurt;

Who has never lent money at interest

Or accepted a bribe against the innocent.

The one who acts thus will never be shaken.

(Psalm 15)

Particularly resonant with me is, “Who stands by his/her oath, even to his/her hurt.” Perhaps I would translate, “even when it is not to his/her advantage,” or “even when he/she will pay a price.” This psalm is about doing what we know to be right, even when we know that we can gain by doing otherwise. It is also about a broader definition of what is right than what is self serving.

Yaakov (Jacob), as we meet him in this week’s Torah portion (Toldot), adopts the first approach.  He exploits Esau’s weakness, and Esau agrees to sell his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34.  Yaakov is clever enough, with help from his mother, to trick is father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau (Genesis 27).  He and Rebecca can even justify their actions as what is unfortunately required to carry out God’s Will, who tells Rebecca that her older son will serve the younger.  (Genesis 25:23)

Ya’akov pays a steep price for his living according to the first approach – the murderous wrath of his brother, exile, estrangement and exploitation. In the house of Laban the trickster will be tricked.  Learning the hard way, he will eventually acknowledge the error of his ways. He will wrestle with himself, try to make amends with Esau, and see God in Esau’s face when he does so  (Genesis 33:10).  We must ask whether there might have been another way to fulfill God’s Prophecy.

Today in Israel there are those who believe we have a right to whatever our power allows us to take.  Our Prime Minister should not resign or recuse himself because the law does not require him do so, and he is serving the Jewish People as no other can. The Palestinians forfeited a fair share of water in the Oslo accords, and no country voluntarily returns what it wins in war. The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It is OK to manipulate the law to “legally” displace and dispossess them….

Nobody should pay more taxes than they are obligated to after exploiting every possible loophole.  We worked hard for our money, and have no obligation to share our wealth with others…..

There is nothing worse than being a “friar,” a naïve sucker.  There is nothing more stupid than asking a “she’ealat kitbag,” a question eliciting an answer you don’t want to hear….

Most of these attitudes are by no means unique to Israel or Israelis. Perhaps they have been accentuated in a people who lived by our wits in oppressive situations for two thousand years. Often our survival depended on outwitting the anti-Semites.  However, these understandable attitudes, that perhaps contributed to our survival when we were powerless, have now been wedded to the power we enjoy as a particularly successful sovereign state. They are often both dangerous and wrong, even if “legal,” technically permissible, and no different than the way many others act.

They are not the way I desire or need to live.

Today, dwelling again in our homeland, again enjoying sovereignty, and in possession of God’s Holy Mountain, we need to make the difficult switch to the ideals embodied in Psalm 15.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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