Thursday, January 8, 2009

Vayechi: Ideals

The question is often asked how Biblical characters with ruach hakodesh lived their lives almost knowing their denouements. The clearest example of this is how the Gemara in Bava Basra details how Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the psukim dealing with his passing with his own tears.

Yaakov Avinu seems to have been suffering more from this nearly schizophrenic existence; one example might be when he sees that there is “shever” in Egypt and the medrash hints that he has some inkling that Yosef is alive there, even while he mourns his loss for 22 years, during which his ruach hakodesh is supposedly absent.

However, a starker contrast between “hakol tzafui” and “hareshut nitnah” might be embodied in this parsha, where Yaakov calls all his sons together—ostensibly to reveal the actual “ketz”, or moment of the geula, before his ruach hakodesh actually departs him; so he blesses each of them in turn instead.

In a very loose sense, what we might have here is a microcosm of trying to align a reality with a narrative ideal, loosely analogous to trying to align the way things “are” with the way they “ought to be”. One real marker of gadlus particularly among the avos was how they operated within this framework, almost seemingly exercising bechira in areas where they seemed not to have any.

Yet it is precisely in our day and age when the real and ideal are sometimes confused, when values and virtues are interchangeable, that the instructivity of such a stance becomes cautionary at best. One could toss about the usual Talmudic adages—“Lo Nitnah Torah le’Malachei Hashares” and the like—but that might not even be necessary here.

Judaism, and by extension, halacha, has been termed an “ought” culture. Many complaints abound about how Jews have forsaken “Jewish values” and “ideals” for other systems of thought or morality. This is precisely the problem. “Values”, “ideals” and “oughts” are always subjective. “Ideals” are especially tenuous as goals, because once they are attained, they cease to be ideals.

To be sure, with in the “grey areas” or the “reshus” between assur and mutar, there are at times “better” courses of action (and, as I detailed last week, actions that can only be appropriate in specific situations and not at other times.) Judaism might actually turn out to be the best example of “situational ethics” there is: what applies in situation A doesn’t apply in situation B. This does not lend itself to any sort of moral relativism; on the contrary, it demands that one recognize what type of situation exists before one applies laws. Or “morals”. Or “ideals”.

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