Judaism and a complete life

There was a person in the Tora who is regarded as being "complete." It is none other than the patriarch Jacob. That seems an odd choice, considering how very human and, seemingly imperfect, he was. After all, he tells the most brazen lie in the entire book of Genesis when he says to his father, "I am Esau, thy firstborn."

We see him taking advantage of his brother, we see him losing his temper with his wife. We see him fighting with the angel, and we see him making the cardinal parenting error, showing favoritism to one particular son.

What's more, his life was one big torment! From the moment he had to run away from his brother, who wanted to kill him, he had troubles. He was fooled by Laban into marrying a woman he did not want, he worked for many years, always protecting himself against being taken advantage of. Later, he spent many years believing his beloved son Joseph was dead. His life ended in exile, in Egypt.

Is that the complete life of a perfect person?

Yes, it is. Judaism does not define completeness and perfection as "success." Our modern definition, which usually includes a nice house, a nice family, some good cars and a membership in the synagogue or church, does not match what Judaism teaches. Those things are all good, but they are not all.

Think about this. Jacob was in love with Rachel. He worked seven years in order to marry her. On the wedding night, Laban, the father-in-law, pulled a switch. He sent his oldest daughter, Leah, to be with Jacob in disguise. How it was that Jacob didn't recognize her, we can talk about some other time! Nonetheless, it happened, and Jacob wasn't very happy in the morning. He found out that he had married the "wrong" woman, Leah, when he really wanted Rachel! He had been tricked, and he had a right to be angry.

And he was, and even said so to his surprise wife. According to the commentaries, he criticized her having pretended to be Rachel in order to get him. But Leah was no fool. These commentaries have her respond to Jacob with a very sharp comment, "And are you Jacob and not Esau?" In other words, you live in a glass house. Don't throw stones. You deceived your father to get something no less important, his legacy and blessing.

What a powerful commentary! To me, the most astounding fact of this story is that Jacob kept Leah as his wife! He had every right to opt out. This had been a false business deal, he had been tricked. Was it reasonable to expect him to remain married to a woman he did not want? And yet, he stayed.

And a good thing he did! Leah became the mother of six of the tribes of Israel. At the end of the day, God's judgment was that this marriage was a great thing.

This is the secret of Jacob's completeness. Jacob is described as having dreamt of a "ladder planted in the earth whose top reaches to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it." I believe those angels represent Jacob himself. There are times in life when he is ascending, doing good works and rising up high. There are also times when he descends, when he makes mistakes and finds himself in trouble. The thing that is crucial to Jacob, however, is that he always remains on that ladder. Jacob accepts the consequences of his actions, and when he feels himself descending the ladder, he always finds the way to turn around and go up again.

Jacob accepted that he was now married to Leah. True, he could've gotten out of it. Nonetheless, he felt that she was the corrective that God sent him. And from his acceptance, the children of Israel were born. The complete person stays on the ladder, accepts what God sends him and never gives up until he reaches that pinnacle.

Rules, Laws, and Obeying Orders

Any rule or law that is ultimately immoral must be disobeyed. The Nazi laws of euthanasia, racism and institutionalized murder and genocide are the most extreme examples. Contemporary examples include the tragic case of that woman who was disconnected from her feeding tube in Florida, a number of years back. That, simply put, was murder. Judaism allows the withholding of medical care, if the quality of life would be too painful or difficult. Withholding food, however, is murder through starvation. Any form of doctor assisted suicide is outside acceptable practice.

In some cases, a strong sense of personal ethics and courage is required. A soldier given an order that, to his ethical standards, is immoral, must be prepared to suffer the consequences of disobeying. In a most extreme case, a person may not save their own life by agreeing to kill someone else. Say our sages, "What makes you think that your blood is any redder?."

Confusion comes when an order is against one's philosophy or politics, but not one's ethics. Jewish soldiers who do not believe in building Jewish towns in formerly Jordanian areas sometimes refuse to serve in those areas. I believe that is wrong. Protecting people with whom you disagree politically is no violation of any ethical standard. What this type of refusal does is create chaos. An army is charged with defending the citizens of the state. It is not to be a political battleground. Especially considering the high ethical standards of the Israel Defense forces, any soldier should have complete ease of conscience.

All of this raises the critical question of what are ethics, and what are opinions. Is there a concrete list?

Judaism emphatically says yes. The Torah is our guidebook of ethics. It is not, as is often misunderstood, a book dealing with rituals and theology exclusively. Extensive rules of business ethics, societal ethics and interpersonal relationships are interwoven throughout.

Therefore, for example, one cannot say, "I cannot kill anybody." There are situations when killing someone is the only moral choice. Specifically, defending against attackers, or saving others who are under violent assault, may often require killing the pursuer. To not do so is unethical and immoral! "Thou shalt not stand idly by as your brother's blood is spilled." Of course, we pray that such situations never arise.

Ethics are not a matter of personal choice. Rather, the choice is whether to live and choose ethically, or opportunistically. We must recognize that not every human being behaves ethically all the time. No human being is the all-perfect source of ethics. Again, as an extreme, the German soldier of World War II could not claim that the evil dictator of Germany was the ultimate source of all ethics. Even though German propaganda said that, it is a denial of God as the ultimate source of ethics.

Even people who are highly ethical, and highly respected, are not to be mistaken for God. The greatest Jewish scholars and Torah teachers never claim to be sources of ethics. Instead, they are teachers of God's ethics. In a subtle, but powerful, nuance, sages are not referred to as "wise men." Instead, they are called "wise students." Students, because they themselves must study the ethics of Torah in order to teach it. The ultimate source must always be God. Not a politician, media guru, radio personality or movie star.

Teaching kids morals in a permissive world

Many parents leave teaching morals to their kids to others. They are not comfortable with it, they are afraid that, somehow, their kids will reject them. Therefore, they leave the teaching of morals to their children's teachers and school.

Many teachers are afraid to teach morals to their students. They are afraid that there instruction may conflict with what the parents want. Therefore, they leave the teaching of morals to the parents.

Since neither parents nor teachers are teaching morals, then where are the kids learning? The answer, my friends, is either they are trying to figure it out for themselves or they are learning it from their friends, or, most probably, they are learning it from television, Internet, music, and pop media.

None of those influences are going to teach them good morals.

We live in a time of great narcissism. The idea of personal morals is an unfashionable one. If the purpose of life is to feel good, why should I refrain from anything that gives me that? As long as I don't hurt anyone else -- at least too much -- then what is wrong with it? When we fail to teach our children morals and bend over backwards to make them happy, we are spiritually killing them. We are killing the sense of responsibility and community that will enrich their lives and guide them on a proper path.

One of the 10 Commandments is that famous "honor thy father and my mother". Jewish law requires that children stand up when their parents enter the room. That, in and of itself, is a powerful statement. It also subtly shows the child the moral attribute of responsibility. It shows the child that he or she is part of something larger than themselves, and must fulfill their role within that system.

There is a flip side that parents must be aware of. Parents themselves must honor their parents. Your kids are watching how you treat your parents, and your kids learn more from your example than from what you say. If you want them to take their place in your family lineage, then you must do the same.

Parents must also realize that they should earn their honor. They should do it by living up to the standards that they want their children to follow. Children crave order, and are built to learn morals. Parents must teach them in word and in deed. They must not be afraid to say that some things are right and some things are wrong.

We are in a time of spiritual war. Society says that permissiveness is in, and many of your children's friends behave in very permissive ways. It takes a lot of guts to tell your kid that sex before marriage is against your moral code. All of the TV and movies that your kids watch accept that normal high school kids are sexually active. You may feel that you are telling your kid to be a freak and an outcast. It is not easy.

The secret to proper moral instruction of children is to, first of all, have the guts to do it. Have the guts to talk about everything, and explain the correct perspective. When children hear it from their parents, and know that their parents believe in that code and strive to live up to it, that is the best that can happen. Certainly, keeping the kids in a better school atmosphere and better social atmosphere is crucial, but is not sufficient. Even children enrolled in yeshiva Jewish schools are not insulated from the outside world. Parents must step up to the plate.

It's too important to leave to TV. This is our children, they are our future. We must keep our traditions and morals alive through them.