102 Miraculous Years
By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
Robin Hood wasn’t Jewish – and neither were his methods of alleviating poverty.
As children we all read or heard of the story of Robin Hood, the English folk hero who, together with a fellow group of outlaws, would steal money and possessions from the rich in order to give them to the poor. Robin Hood is commonly portrayed as a hero, a champion for the cause of equality. Although his methods amounted to criminal behavior, he is still depicted as a noble, heroic figure for his willingness to risk his life for the sake of the underprivileged.
The concept underlying Robin Hood-type heroism is that “the ends justify the means,” that noble goals may be pursued through ignoble behavior. Robin Hood would agree that theft is wrong, but he felt it becomes acceptable, and even admirable, when done for the sake of a noble purpose such as feeding the poor.
A recent historical example of this line of reasoning is the Communist movement. Communism began as an idealistic campaign to bring an ultimate end to all strife and animosity among people by dividing material assets evenly among all citizens. Communist rebels, such as the Bolsheviks, were convinced that this movement would cure all the earth’s ills, and thus felt it was justified, and even necessary, to wage bloody wars and kill opponents for the sake of the communist ideal. According to some estimates, approximately 50 million people were killed for the sake of Communism. Horrific as it sounds, communist leaders ostensibly waged this campaign with a clear conscience and fierce idealism, sincerely believing that the carnage was perfectly justified in the interest of realizing the movement’s lofty vision.
The Torah fundamentally rejects the notion of “the ends justify the means.” We are to pursue noble goals through noble means, and goals that can be achieved only through nefarious means must not be pursued at all, period.
The Torah in Parashat Shofetim (Devarim 16:20), in the context of the laws of judges, exhorts, “Sedek sedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Already the Talmud, in Masechet Sanhedrin, raises the question of why the Torah here repeats the word “sedek.” The Talmud explains that this emphasis indicates that litigants should bring their cases to well-trained, expert judges. If a court of seasoned, scholarly judges is available, litigants should not compromise judicial standards by submitting their case to judges of lesser stature. The added emphasis of “sedek sedek” suggests that when it comes to justice, we must pursue the very highest standards we can, and not settle on anything less.
However, there is also an additional interpretation. When the Torah commands us to pursue “justice, justice,” it means that we must pursue justice with justice. We are to use only sedek– just, moral conduct – in the quest for sedek, in our efforts to create and maintain a just society. It was not enough for the Torah to command us to pursue sedek; it also had to command that we go about this pursuit with sedek, with appropriate means.
Moshe’s Refusal at the Burning Bush
We find numerous examples in the Torah of great figures who refused to employ questionable means in the pursuit of lofty goals. One such figure is none other than Moshe Rabbenu. Gd appeared to Moshe for the first time at the burning bush, where He told Moshe to return to Egypt, from where he had been forced to flee, and lead Beneh Yisraelto freedom. After over two centuries of oppression, the time had come for the nation to go free, and Moshe was chosen for the historical mission of leading this process. Moreover, Gd informed Moshe that after the Exodus, he would bring Beneh Yisraelto Sinai to receive the Torah. The job offered to Moshe thus involved not just leading a slave nation to freedom after 210 years of persecution, but also the privilege of spending 40 days and nights receiving the Torah from Gd and teaching it to the people.
Moshe initially refused the offer, for several reasons. At one point in his dialogue with Gd, Moshe said that he could not take on this position because of his older brother, Aharon. Moshe feared that Aharon, who had remained in Egypt as a religious leader throughout the years while Moshe lived in Midyan, might feel slighted or humiliated if his younger brother shows up and announces that he was selected by Gd to lead Beneh Yisrael. And Moshe did not want to take on any job that might possibly cause embarrassment to his brother. Of course, Aharon was a humble, righteous man, and was not likely to feel offended. And if he would take offense, Moshe could have easily assuaged those feelings by reminding Aharon that this was Gd’s decision. Nevertheless, Moshe refused to take this chance. He declined an offer to become the leader of Beneh Yisrael, and the one who brought the Torah from the heavens, out of concern for the slight possibility that his older brother might feel ever so slightly offended. The lofty goal of leading Beneh Yisrael did not justify the means of possibly offending his brother. Moshe was prepared to give up his entire leadership career in order to avoid the slightest infraction to Aharon’s honor.
In the end, Gd assured Moshe that Aharon would not take any offense, and would in fact rejoice over his brother’s appointment as leader. Once Moshe received this assurance, but not a moment before, he accepted the mission to lead Beneh Yisrael to freedom. But Moshe’s initial refusal demonstrates how no objective can justify immoral means; that even slightly questionable methods are not legitimate even for pursuing the loftiest of goals.
Another remarkable example of this rule is the famous story of our matriarch Rachel’s marriage to Yaakov. During the engagement, Yaakov and Rachel anticipated that Rachel’s corrupt, wily father, Lavan, might bring Rachel’s sister, Leah, to Yaakov instead of Rachel. Yaakov and Rachel therefore devised a strategy to outsmart Lavan, agreeing upon certain signals whereby Yaakov would know that the woman he marries is in fact Rachel. However, as the wedding day drew near, Rachel began to realize that her older sister would be terribly ashamed if, on the wedding night, Yaakov realizes who she is and calls out Lavan on his trickery. In order to spare Leah embarrassment, Rachel revealed to her sister the secret “code” that she and Yaakov had made. Indeed, Yaakov ended up marrying Leah, and then afterward Lavan agreed to allow him to marry Rachel, as well.
Let us examine Rachel’s situation a bit more deeply. Rachel did not know that after Leah married Yaakov, she would also marry him. From her standpoint, revealing the signals to Leah meant forfeiting marriage to Yaakov forever. What she did know was that Yaakov was destined to be the third patriarch who would establish Gd’s treasured nation, and that Yaakov’s wife would be a matriarch of that special nation. But she was willing to forfeit this eternal stature in order to avoid causing her sister humiliation. Moreover, the sages teach that before the wedding, rumors spread to the effect that whichever of the sisters did not marry Yaakov would have to marry his evil brother, Esav. Rachel was prepared to forfeit her marriage to Yaakov, and to marry Esav, to preserve her sister’s dignity.
We must also remember that the humiliation Rachel feared Leah would suffer would have been, at least partially, deserved, at least from Rachel’s perspective. After all, she might have thought, if Leah went along with Lavan’s scheme and came to marry Yaakov, she is to be blamed for the consequences.
But this consideration did not enter Rachel’s calculus. She refused to enter a marriage and to be part of the formation of the Jewish people if this would entail causing her sister shame. The lofty goal of marrying Yaakov and creating the Nation of Israel did not justify embarrassing another person. Even an end as significant as this did not justify slightly questionable means.
The halachic expression of this notion is the well-known principle of “missva haba’a ba’avera” – a missva that one performs by committing a sin. The classic example of this rule, discussed at length by the Gemara, is that of “lulav hagazul – a stolen lulav.” If a person grabs somebody else’s lulav on Succot, brings it to the synagogue and uses it, he is not credited with a missva. Even if all four species are of the highest quality, and he recites the beracha with great concentration and intensity, he has not performed a missva. A missva facilitated by a sin is, quite simply, not a missva.
Another example discussed in halachic literature is bread produced from stolen grain. A person walks into another person’s fields, collects some grain without permission, and then produces flour from those stalks. He decides to use the flour to bake halla for Shabbat, and he kneads the dough with all the Kabbalistic recitations and intentions written in the holy books. At every stage of the process, he announces with his eyes closed and with the deepest concentration, “Lichvod Shabbat – In honor of Shabbat!” The Gemara says that when he sits down to eat that bread and he recites a beracha, the blessing is repulsive. Gd is disgusted by having His Name associated with a criminal act. It is better for the thief to eat this halla without a beracha than to perform a missva with stolen goods.
Unfortunately, there are many people who have failed to internalize the lesson of “missva haba’a ba’avera.” Numerous high profile crooks – including, much to our disgrace, several Jews – were generous philanthropists who donated to worthy charitable causes. Their rationale, it seems, was that ill-begotten profits can be purified through charity. In their mind, it was perhaps legitimate to steal from customers or from the government for the sake of supporting worthy charities; the altruistic end, they felt, justified the criminal means. This is a grave and tragic mistake. To put it simply and bluntly, charity given from stolen money is not a missva. The only way to purify stolen money is through the standard process of repentance – genuinely confessing wrongdoing, resolving to never repeat the crime, and returning the stolen funds.
It is told that the Hafetz Haim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933) once saw a person with a reputation for dishonesty surveying a selection of etrogim. The man painstakingly examined all the available etrogim, intent upon choosing the highest quality etrog for the missva. The sage approached the man and said, “No matter how ‘kosher’ the etrog is, if the money with which it is purchased is not kosher, then the missva is not fulfilled.” And this is true of any missva for which we spend money. If somebody’s money is earned unjustly, he earns no credit for the missvot he performs with that money. He can give charity, sponsor Torah institutions and educational programs, and purchase new Torah scrolls, but he receives no credit. These noble goals do not justify the unethical means.
Bullying One’s Way to the Synagogue
The message of “missva haba’a ba’avera” applies not only to ill-begotten assets, but also to other forms of improper conduct.
I recall many years ago, as a young teen, learning from Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim about the importance of being among the first to arrive in the synagogue in the morning. He taught us that the first ten men who arrive receive the same award as everyone else combined, and that the first one who arrives receives even more reward. The hacham’s words left a strong impression on me, and I was determined to be the first in the school synagogue each morning from then on.
And thus the next morning, I went to school by car service, rather than waiting for the bus, so I could arrive at school a half-hour before everyone else. As it turned out, however, another boy in the class had the exact same plan. We met by the entrance to the school, exchanged greetings, and, when we realized what was going on, started running full speed toward the school synagogue. I managed to pull ahead, and was poised to cross the “finish line” into the sanctuary when my classmate dealt me a powerful whack from behind. I fell on the floor, and he scooted ahead into the synagogue.
Of course, this is an extreme – and humorous – example of “missva haba’a ba’avera.” It goes without saying that somebody who knocks over his friend to be the first person in the synagogue gets less reward for his attendance than the fellow who shows up late and then falls asleep. But there are other, more common examples of this type of behavior. People rushing to arrive at the prayer service on time occasionally speed or drive recklessly, endangering themselves and others, or park illegally and block other cars, showing no consideration for other people. Let us ask ourselves, how kindly does Gd look upon the prayers of somebody who blocked a driveway or ran through a red light to get to the synagogue on time? Another unfortunate phenomenon is fighting and backstabbing among people involved in community institutions. If a person cannot sit on a committee without insulting his fellow members or without giving consideration to their opinions, then he should step down. If in starting a new charity or program, a person feels he must bully other people to be successful, then he should drop the idea altogether. The ends do not justify the means.
The Right Means to Success
In conclusion, let us return to the story of Rachel and Leah. The end of the story is that Rachel ended up marrying Yaakov, and she was infertile for many years until she finally conceived and gave birth to Yosef (and later Binyamin). TheZoharcomments that Rachel, by her nature, was unfit to bear children. However, as reward for the selflessness she showed to Leah on what was to have been her wedding night, her nature was transformed and she became fertile.
Remarkably, it turns out that Rachel’s decision to forego on her marriage is actually what enabled her to become a matriarch of the Jewish Nation. It appeared as though she was surrendering her status as matriarch to preserve Leah’s dignity, but as it turns out, she actually secured this status by sharing the codes with her sister.
This is a vital lesson regarding the topic of ends and means. The best way to ensure the realization of our goals is to utilize only appropriate means. And when we must drop a certain endeavor because of the illegitimate means entailed, we will, eventually, see how this decision actually helped realize that goal. If we pursue sedekthrough only sedek, then our pursuits will be successful. The best way to ensure ultimate success is by ensuring to maintain the strictest standards of propriety, and never compromising our principles in the pursuit of even the loftiest of goals.
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