It’s human nature to value everything. Being limited by space and time means that we have options, and inevitably we choose that which we value the most. Sometimes it truly is more valuable, and sometimes we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking it is more valuable.
Having come to America in my 30s allowed me to sense two things that native-born Americans don’t. I found the sweet aroma of liberation that America’s freedoms and equal opportunities allow. It was like a straitjacket had been removed. I felt free to spread my wings and fly like an eagle.
The second and less exciting smell I picked up on was the smell of a mistaken value system, especially the system used to value people. Generally speaking, people in America value each other by how successful they are. People are “worth” how much money they have. People who cross over the invisible line into the realm of success are praised with the accolade of “having made it.” To be sure, this is true for all of the Western world; it is more palpable in America.
We all sense that this is a very mistaken way of how to value people. The question, however, is whether this is, in fact, the inevitable result of such a free society. Since we are all free to succeed, success is logically the ultimate prize.
This logic is flawed. All very successful people who are also very honest will tell you that success is a gift from the Almighty. Success is something man can and should strive for, but it is something he cannot determine. Man’s worth must be about what he has made of himself and not about what he has been gifted.
Righteous decisions are the only things that man can truly do to make himself more worthy. Success belongs to God; the honor of righteousness belongs to man.
Our responsibility is to make correct decisions, to make righteous decisions and to choose between good and evil, as defined in Torah. The more righteous, the more worthy, the more valuable. It is naive to think we cannot and should not value people, but what values system should we use?
We are in control of whether or not we conduct our business dealings honestly. God is in control of whether the business deal is successful. We are in control of whether or not our conversations, writings and artistic expressions are used in the pursuit of raising our morality and dignity or in the pursuit of arousing our base natures and glorifying immorality. Whether we are successful, whether we achieve fame or not, is God’s choice.
Righteousness is the only thing truly placed in man’s control, and therefore, for it alone, people should be valued.
This is the understanding of the argument Jacob and Rachel have in this week’s parsha.
Rachel, after seeing Leah bear four children to Jacob, complained to him, “Give me children — otherwise I am dead.”
Jacob got angry and answered back, “Am I instead of God, who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?”
Rachel was mistaken about her own value. She thought if she did not succeed in her mission to bear children who would become part of the 12 tribes, she had no value.
Jacob answered her that her worth is not in her success (or lack thereof), rather it is in righteousness.
We cannot ultimately know why God decides to make one person’s efforts successful and another’s not. Do not be mistaken, he told her, your decision is correct, and that is where you find your true value.
Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.