Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Do the ends justify the means? / Toldot

We are accustomed to examining and ruminating over the events of our lives by considering: What does this mean to me? What does this mean for me? Parshat Toldot offers another view that can broaden our perspective.

Rebekkah, the wife of Yitzhak, conceives. Twins struggle with one another while still in utero, causing Rebekkah to ask: Im kein, lama zeh anochi / If this is so, why do I exist?

Many commentators understand Rebekkah’s question as an inward plaint of pain. For example: “Why then did I yearn and pray to become pregnant?” or “Why do I go on living?” (see Etz Hayyim, Jewish Publication Society, p. 146). I would suggest that a miserable pregnancy is not at all the thrust of Rebekkah’s question. Rather, she is asking the significance of her experience, beyond herself, and also her part in the unfolding event that is her pregnancy. Hence, she is asking: If this is happening, what does it mean and what is my role as the mother of these two? God supplies an answer confirming that for Rebekkah this is more than a rotten pregnancy:
Two peoples are in your belly;
Two nations shall branch off from each other [emerging] from our womb.
One people shall prevail over the other;
The elder shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25:23)
Rebekkah is not the only mother to whom God discloses information about her son’s future: Hagar (Genesis 16:10-12) and Samson’s mother (Judges 13:3-5) also learn their son’s fates early on. But Rebekkah’s situation is different: her sons will contend with one another and ultimately one will dominate while the other will serve.

Rebekkah takes God’s words to heart. We might wonder if Yaakov is her “favorite” son because he’s a “mama’s boy,” as so many have made him out to be, or because Rebekkah has understood God’s words to her (Genesis 25:23) to mean that Yaakov is the designated son to carry the Covenant forward to the next generation. If she simply prefers Yaakov because he sticks close to the tent, then Rebekkah’s role in the deception of Yitzhak whereby he confers the blessings intended for Esav on Yaakov is immoral – indeed, despicable. If, however, she understands God’s intent correctly, then she is facilitating the transfer of the Covenant from Yitzkak to Yaakov in accord with God’s intent.

Yet serious problems remain, both in Torah’s account and – morally – for us. Claiming to know God’s will absolutely more often leads to absolute evil than to good – history is replete with examples ranging from the Inquisition to individuals who claimed to be doing what God bid them. Also to consider is whether the ends justify the means.

Machiavelli, in his treatise on power, The Prince, wrote that the ends justify the means and comments, “Anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything must be ruined among so many who are not good.” Yet there are times when it is precisely the moral outcome that justifies otherwise unacceptable means: for pikuach nefesh (to save a life) we may lie, cheat, and even steal. Yet there are limits: we may not commit murder, idolatry, or incest, even to save a life, including our own.

Consequentialists are moral philosophers who hold that a good outcome or consequence is the sole arbiter of the morality of the action that brought it about. This suggests that we cannot say whether an act is morally good or bad until we see what happens. But in this very real world in which we live, there are multiple consequences to our words and deeds – indeed, there is often a cascade of events.
Here are several questions to ponder:
  • Should Israel trade release terrorists from jail in order to secure the release of kidnapped soldiers?
  • Is it acceptable for missionaries to employ deceptive tactics to gain converts? What if we’re talking about a baal teshuvah yeshivah?
  • Is it morally acceptable to use torture to extract information if there is reason to believe that innocent lives could be saved?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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