Biblical Litmus Tests (Ideas #74)



Every year when I teach the book of Bereshit, I inevitably get at least one student bothered by the Jewish tradition that Yakov embodies the virtue of honesty. My incredulous students ask, with an honesty that would have perhaps made Yakov himself proud, if Yakov was really so honest, how is it that he deceived his own father, the holy Yitzchak. Even without my students' question, the irony seems so strong that it certainly calls for our attention.  

Were this to be the only such contrast, we might well have more difficulty trying to understand its significance. In fact, there are other such gaps between the essence of various Biblical heroes and some of their central deeds. Most markedly, we see this in the lives of Avraham and Tamar: In teaching about Avraham, I always point out that the binding of Yitzchak is made all the more difficult for Avraham by his well-known trait of loving-kindness. Here, too, the skeptic may ask how it is that Jewish tradition can consider a man who enthusiastically prepared to kill his son to be the epitome of loving-kindness; likewise with Yehudah's daughter-in-law, Tamar, whom Jewish tradition sees as the embodiment of modesty. Again, this view of Tamar also seems to fly in the face of the Biblical text, which tells us how she seduced Yehudah by pretending to be a prostitute.

While a careful study of the life stories of Avraham, Tamar and Yehudah may well bear out the traits mentioned above, we would still need an explanation as to why each were called upon to perform acts so contrary to their own personalities. (Although G-d only spoke to Avraham, many commentators understand that Yakov and Tamar also felt that the Divine will called upon them to do what they did.) It therefore behooves us to think about what it is that G-d accomplished in putting these heroes in such situations. 

One of the most important and yet elusive aspects of serving G-d is the motivation behind our service. In other words, when we observe the mitzvot, we may want to ask ourselves: What moves me in doing this act? We all know the right answer is that we want to do what G-d wants, yet it is rarely clear whether or not this is the main motive in our service. No doubt, for most people there is at least an admixture of personal gain - we want to please ourselves, our families and our peers by being people who do the right thing.  

Part of the problem is that what pleases G-d is meant to please us as well. That is to say, we are supposed to derive satisfaction from doing the right thing. Still, in spite of this Divine gift which helps us along our religious path, we are ultimately meant to serve G-d because it pleases Him and Him alone.  

Thus, we may want to reformulate our question about motivation by asking whether we do mitzvot because G-d wants it and I happen to like it too, or because I like it and G-d happens to want it too. Many of us live our entire lives without ever being sure of the answer to this all-important question - all-important, because ultimately, it spells out the difference between worship of G-d and worship of self. 

The Biblical heroes mentioned above were able to affirm that their service of G-d was primarily for His sake and not their own. They were also able to show us that such an affirmation does not come easily. This only comes when we can do something about which we can categorically say that, even though G-d wants it, we certainly do not like it. It only comes when G-d puts us in a position where we have to go completely against our inner nature.   

So it is that Avraham proves himself by having to serve G-d and G-d alone by sacrificing Yitzchak, something completely alien to Avraham's personal will and character. So too, when Tamar needed to turn her back on her modesty, she showed that she was willing to go against her own intuitive nature if that is what G-d wanted. In this, she shows us that what ultimately determines how she acts is the will of G-d.  Finally, the text shows us that Yakov is reluctant to listen to his mother's plan and deceive his father. He is reluctant because such a plan is alien to his nature and is usually contrary to the service of G-d. Still, once he is clear that his mother's request is in line with G-d's will, he hesitates no more. In this he also shows us that, like Avraham before him and Tamar after him, his personal style and character traits are not his bottom line.   

Indeed, it is precisely when such an occasion arises, as in the case of Avraham, that the Torah calls it a test. In other words, so long as we want to do what G-d asks of us, our motivation remains largely unexamined and certainly unproven.                                                                                                                            
While we need not seek such tests ourselves, we should appreciate that when our heroes passed them, they showed us the ideals towards which we need to strive. If nothing else, we can learn from them that it is G-d we are here to serve and not ourselves.