Stealing the Birthright: Does the End Justify the Means?

Sermon given November 15, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

According to Jewish law, Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision, must be performed on the eighth day of an infant boy’s life. If the eighth day falls on the Sabbath, or on a holy day, even on Yom Kippur, we are permitted to violate the Sabbath or holiday in order to perform the Brit Milah. Circumcision on the eighth day is so important that many other laws may be broken in order to carry it out. The end, in this case, justifies the means.

As significant as eighth-day circumcision is, though, other principles are higher. The Brit Milah must be delayed if there is any concern for the child’s health at all. Failing to circumcise the baby on the eighth day is a serious transgression. As a means toward the end of protecting the infant from harm, though, the delay is justified.

In fact, Judaism has always recognized that we must often break one law in order to act in accordance with another. One particular mitzvah supersedes almost every other. It is pikuach nefesh, the obligation to save life. To save a human life, we are permitted to lie, cheat, and steal. The end justifies even some very serious sins. And yet, some means are beyond the pale. Three prohibitions — murder, idolatry and incest — are so serious that we may not transgress them, even to save a life. Some means can not be justified by any end.

In general, then, are we permitted to violate the law, our morals and ethics, in order to achieve a noble goal? Does the end justify the means? Judaism’s answer seems to be wishy-washy: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

At least one side in the current debate about public school text books in Texas thinks that it has an easy answer to this problem. I speak of those who oppose the adoption of the textbooks in question, on the grounds that they present a picture of America that is depressing, for it is less than morally pure. These individuals exalt positive goals, and ask us to ignore the wicked means by which they were achieved. They would teach our children more about the great American conquest of the west, more about manifest destiny, but less about the mass destruction of the Native American peoples who lived here first, less about the species that were hunted into extinction, less, that is, about the means, and more about the end.

Excess is possible on the other side, as well. There are those who brand America as a racist nation, one that has thrived exclusively on the exploitation of minorities, women and workers. They ignore the opportunity that this land offers to tens of millions of hopeful immigrants. They forget that we live in the greatest democracy in the history of humankind. They are blind to the myriad contributions the United States has made to the world in science, arts, and literature. They would ignore the great goals that our nation has achieved, focusing only on the questionable means by which we got here.

Fortunately, though, the supporters of the proposed textbooks, who seem to have prevailed for now, have chosen a middle course. They recognize that there is no easy answer to our question about means and ends. Their position is bolstered by this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toledot, which exalts the greatest of goals, while at the same time recognizing that immoral means do have consequences.

In the part of the portion that Logan will read tomorrow, our patriarch Isaac is old and sick. He fears that death is near. He calls his oldest son, Esau, in order to give him the special blessing meant only for the first-born son. First, though, Isaac asks Esau to go and hunt some game, to prepare it for Isaac and bring it to him. Then Isaac will bless his son.

Rebekah hears Isaac’s plan, and is distraught. Earlier, you see, as Robert read tonight, God had told Rebekah that the younger son, Jacob, would establish the greater nation. Moreover, as the boys had grown , Rebekah had observed Jacob’s fine character and studious nature. She knows that only Jacob is worthy of the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. So Rebekah devises a devious plan. Jacob will go to the barn, kill a goat, disguise himself as Esau, and go to Isaac to secure the blessing. Jacob complies, and the plan works. The blessing goes to Jacob, also known as Israel, the father of the Jewish people.

The end, it would seem, justifies the means. Sure, Rebekah lies to her husband and cheats her own son, Esau, out of a blessing that was rightfully his. And yet, had she not done so, Abraham’s legacy would have been passed to Esau, a man spiritually unequipped to transmit the message of God. Though her actions were themselves immoral, Rebekah forestalled a much greater evil. She prevented the death of our people’s covenant with God.

Interestingly enough, though, the Torah itself offers no clear ruling on the righteousness of Rebekah’s actions. In fact, she suffers terribly as a result. Esau threatens to kill Jacob, and Rebekah’s favorite son is forced to flee. Rebekah’s relationship with her husband is permanently damaged, and she never sees either of her sons again, as long as she lives. Yes, in the long run, the goal of Rebekah’s devious plot was achieved, but not without devastating consequences.

The Torah, with the plight of its central characters, provides an excellent illustration of the morally complicated decisions that our nation has made, and that we are all forced to make in our own lives. Often, like Rebekah, we forge ahead without much reflection, sure that we are right. Hopefully, like Rebekah, we have good intentions. Our goals are good ones. And yet, like Rebekah once again, we suffer consequences, for even the most justified end can not erase the path we take to get there.

Life is full of difficult choices. Our patriarchs and matriarchs made decisions that were not beyond reproach, and so do we. I have often wondered whether Rebekah realized that her actions would cause harm, before she carried out her plan. Did she consider the consequences, and decide that the future of the Jewish people was worth it? We do not know. We can learn from her example, however.

Let not the nobility of our cause blind us to the immoral acts we may commit in order to achieve it, but let not the difficulties in our way divert us from our goals when they are just. Let our tradition teach us that some ends do justify immoral means, but may we also learn that some acts are beyond justification. Blessed is God, for the gift of human reason, and for the Torah, our guide. May our minds and our Jewish tradition always help us to discern those occasions when the end justifies the means, and when it does not.