Judaism: Can I Be Happy for You?
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
A Single Vote
I wanted to vote in the recent US elections, I really did. But once again life got in the way. I can’t tell you how many times I berated myself for not partaking in this great democratic privilege. Men and women died for to preserve it and all I need to do is send in my absentee ballot. How hard can it be?
I wanted my candidate to win and my one vote might have tipped the scales, right? Well actually, no. My vote would have been useless. In the end, I didn’t vote because I didn’t make the time to vote, but when I experienced my last stab of guilt upon learning that my preferred candidate lost, I dismissed my burden with the thought that my vote wouldn’t have made a difference.
My last place of residence was the great state of California and with the lovely, but convoluted electoral system favored by the United States, my vote would have amounted to all of nothing. Zero. Nada. Why? Because the state votes overwhelmingly to the left and my vote to the right would not have delivered a single electoral vote. There you have it, my rationalization and justification for being lazy.
But then I stopped and realized something. Ridiculous and archaic as the electoral system is, there is a deep lesson on the virtues of unity that lurks somewhere underneath this behemoth. You see, when the state votes as a single block, it speaks in a unified voice. No matter what the minority wants, the entire state speaks with one voice. It is a tour de force that strengthens the state and its residents because in unity there is oneness and in oneness there is fulfillment. What in the world do I mean?
A Single Rock
Okay let me explain. In the Torah we learn that Jacob, our forefather, traveled alone in the desert. He was impoverished with no tent or bedroll, no cover or pillow. When night fell, Jacob looked about for a place to make camp. In the absence of feathers and down, Jacob made a bed of rocks. He laid them in a semi circle and laid down his precious head.
In the morning he discovered that the many rocks had fused into a single rock. The Midrash explains that when the saintly Jacob laid down his head, a ruckus broke out in heaven. The angels in charge of the rocks began to vie for the privilege of supporting Jacob’s head. Each angel wanted the distinction of playing pillow. No one wanted to serve as Jacob’s footstool; each wanted the head. The miracle fused the rocks into one so that they would all share equally in the privilege of supporting Jacob’s head.
The question arises. If each rock wanted to support Jacob’s head how did fusing them help? Would not each part of the now fused rock insist on playing the role of pillow?
The obvious answer is that you don’t compete with yourself. When you are a single entity you feel the privilege no matter which limb, organ or part plays the role. It is not my hand that feeds the poor; it is I who serve the poor through my hand. My leg doesn’t grumble because my leg is not apart from my hand, leg and hand are both me and I feed the poor. Leg and hand rejoice in a task accomplished jointly.
The rock was now happy because the saint had laid its head on it. No matter that the saint had also laid his legs on the same rock. The rock that served as footstool also served as pillow.
This is just like my precious state of California. If I didn’t vote for Obama it matters not. My state’s electoral vote speaks with single purpose and a unified tongue. I can grumble, but it makes no sense. My state has spoken. I am part of that state and the state is one. Right? Hmmm, somehow this is easier to stomach for a stone than a person, but the point is made.
A Single Society
Let’s take this to the next level and talk about our soul. Human nature is selfish by definition. If there is only one chair, either you will sit on it or I. We can’t both sit on it and I am going to want it for myself. If I surrender it to you out of deference or need, it is a sacrifice into which I must be forced. This is as far as human nature is concerned. The soul, however, has a different approach. When the body proclaims that there is one chair and either I sit or he, the soul replies, rubbish. What is the difference if I get to sit or he does, we are one. Do you worry that while your posterior enjoys the soft cushion your legs are left on the hard ground? No, because you are one.
What you don’t understand is that all people are one. If one sits, all are sitting, does it matter that I’m not the posterior of the collective whole occupying the chair?
This is a soulful approach to life. It is not easily incorporated into day to day living unless one is truly humble and righteous. Only someone who places the soul light years above the body perceives life this way. The body occupies space and only one body can sit on the chair at a time. The soul is beyond space. The soul doesn’t occupy. This soul is occupied. It is occupied by G-d and from G-d’s point of view the whole of the universe is one. It takes a G-dly person to see life this way.
A Single Rachel
Rachel was a G-dly person. She was engaged to Jacob and excited to marry him, but on the night of her betrothal her father forced her to switch with her older sister Leah. Rachel could have undermined the switch. What many don’t know is that Jacob had anticipated his future father in law’s deceit and had established a secret code with Rachel. Had she kept the code a secret, the ruse would have been revealed, but she didn’t. She divulged the code to her sister and spared Leah the shame and indignity.
In describing the morning after the wedding, the Torah says, “It was in the morning and behold she was Leah.” Some Biblical commentators explained the verse this way. Jacob anticipated that Rachel would be substituted by Leah in the dark of the wedding night. He realized that Leah would take advantage of the darkness to lie and say she was Rachel. Jacob therefore instructed Rachel to tell him that she was Leah and he would know she was Rachel because Leah would never have admitted to being Leah.
Rachel divulged the code to her sister. Under the dark of night Leah kept whispering her true name, which convinced Jacob that she was really Rachel. But when the morning dawned he was surprised to learn that behold she was indeed Leah.
Rachel divulged the secret out of her conviction that she and her sister are one. If her sister was shamed under the wedding canopy, she would be shamed too. She could not possibly build her happiness on her sister’s misery. She could not rise on her sister’s fall. Conversely if her sister were happy, she would be find a way to be happy too. To Rachel, soulful oneness was more real that bodily separateness.
Rachel really lived this ideal. For us it is more of a challenge. When my candidate loses, it is of scant comfort to know that my state voted as a single block. Yet, though I know this level of soulful unity is beyond me, it can’t be beyond my dreams. The Torah tells us of Rachel’s attitude for a reason. It tells us that we must at least try.
As Leo Barnett is quoted to have said, “Reach for the stars. You might not quite get one, but you won’t end up with a handful of mud either.”