“Jacob’s Dream” by James Coker
When our kids were little, my wife and I paid close attention to the character of their friends and their friends’ families. If we thought that a child was inherently mean-spirited we discouraged the friendship.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, we read:
“Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field where his flock was and said to them – I see that your father’s manner toward me is not as it has been in the past.” (Genesis 31:5)
Jacob explained that Laban had repeatedly cheated him, that their father was a trickster, duplicitous, and a conniver.
Most commentators note that Laban had always been manipulative and cunning. Though Jacob and Rachel wanted to marry each other, on their wedding night Laban switched daughters and Jacob ended up marrying Rachel’s sister Leah and then had to work an additional seven years to marry Rachel.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi in early Palestine, put these words into Jacob’s mouth as he spoke to his two wives:
“We have to leave this place because when I first came here, I looked at this man Laban and saw how he lived, how devious he was and I was appalled; I was repelled. I couldn’t stand the sight of him and I hated the way he did business. But now that I have been here for twenty years, I’ve gotten used to him. I’ve reached the point where I think that what he does is what one is supposed to do, that it’s normal and proper to be devious. I look at him and I am no longer shocked or offended. Therefore, we better leave this place quickly, because if we stay much longer, I’ll get so accustomed to him and to his ways of doing business that I’ll eventually become like him.”
A story is told about Rabbi Stephen S. Wise when he first visited China. Wise found that the only means of transportation was by rickshaw that was pulled by weak, old and feeble men who coughed as they dragged the wagon through the streets. At first, Rabbi Wise couldn’t stand the sound of their coughing and groaning. It gave him a guilty conscience every time he hired one to take him around. After a while he had become so accustomed to the coughing that he no longer heard it. Shocked by his own callousness, Rabbi Wise realized that it was time for him to leave China.
The moral lesson is clear – we dare not allow ourselves to become so hardened, callous, and accustomed to evil that we take it for granted, become resigned and say “That’s just the way it is. That’s the way it always was. That’s the way it’s going to be.”
We may take the position that we can’t change world! But, we can prevent the world from changing us.
There’s a slippery slope that permits us to accept evil much like a frog that sits passively in slowly heated water until it boils and dies.
“Sin dulls the heart” teaches the Talmud (Yoma 39a-b). We may lie or cheat on a small scale and know as we do it that it’s wrong, but when we do a second time we think it isn’t so bad. Soon we do wrong so frequently that we may not even be aware that our moral paradigm has shifted.
The Zohar sums it up this way: “A sin leaves its mark; repeated it deepens; when committed a third time, the mark becomes a stain.”
The mid-term election is over. Our nation is preparing for a new Congress and very soon we’ll begin to focus not only on the next two years in government but on the 2020 election.
As Jews, as Americans, as moral human beings, the most immediate challenge we face is to avoid becoming indifferent to the corruption, cruelty and lies that have assaulted us these past two years and that likely will continue to assault us every day. It is our moral duty to prevent the stain of immorality from spreading more than it already has.
That was the challenge that Jacob realized in his relationship with his father in-law Laban that Rabbis Cook and Wise understood as well.
Whenever we conclude the reading of one of the five books of Moses or a Talmudic tractate, we say aloud as a community:
“Chazak chazak v’nit’chazek – be strong and together we will strengthen each other.”
That is our charge now after this important mid-term election. May we have the fortitude to resist the corruption and maintain our purity of heart and conscience.