There is an interesting story told in the Book of Judges, Chapter 17. Someone by the name of Michiyahu founded an idolatrous cult. He had an idol and built a temple for this purpose. He sought someone with leadership qualities, charisma and spirituality to lead his group. After a long search he met Yehonasan ben Gershon ben Menashe, of the House of Levi. Michiyahu offered him the job of High Priest of his new religion. Yehonasan agreed.
Who was Yehonasan ben Gershon ben Menashe of the House of Levi? His grandfather could not have been Menashe, the well-known villain, for he had not been born yet.
According to the Gemara (Bava Basra 109) “Menashe” is really a disguised form of “Moshe”. Yehonasan was the grandson of Moshe Rabeinu!
Nachas! What did Moshe do to deserve such a grandson? The Medrash explains that after working as a shepherd for Yisro, the high priest of Midian, Moshe sought his permission to marry his daughter Tzipora. Yisro agreed, with the stipulation that Moshe agree that their firstborn son would be dedicated to serve as a high priest in the Midianite religion. Yisro wanted to make sure he would have a successor. He told Moshe that the rest of his children, Moshe could bring up as he saw fit, but the firstborn he wanted for himself.
Moshe agreed! He calculated that by the time his firstborn son would be old enough to serve as a priest, he (Moshe) would have converted Yisro to Judaism, and Yisro would no longer hold him to his undertaking. He rationalized that if Tzipora were to marry someone else, then not just Gershon, but all of Tziporah’s children, would become pagans. He justified his action on the grounds that Tzipora was his, and he didn’t have the right to push her away.
Moshe’s promise haunted him for years. He named his first born Gershon because, as he put it, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” I wasn’t my own man. I couldn’t make my own decisions; I was a guest – a stranger. He didn’t circumcise Gershon because that would have been a violation of his agreement with Yisro. Even when an angel almost killed Moshe, his wife Tzipora, who never promised anything, was the one who actually circumcised Gershon.
As it turned out, Moshe’s calculations proved correct, so that his eldest son Gershon was indeed saved from idol-worship. But somehow in Shomayim the story did not end there. Moshe had made a promise, and promises have their long term effects. Moshe’s son was spared, but later, down the line, his grandson became a priest.
What exactly was Moshe’s sin here? As Shakespeare writes, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” From our Midrash we learn that even the greatest prophet of all times, the supreme tzadik, the humblest of all men, can come to terms with idolatry for his purpose!
The end does not justify the means. G-d is more concerned with what we do than what will eventually come out of our deeds. Our world is limited to the decisions we make and the actions we take. What will happen in the end is G-d’s business. The first step towards corruption is when the end is used to justify the means. When one rationalizes one’s decisions for the sake of a greater good, truth becomes unimportant and integrity vanishes.
When Yisro made his counterproposal to Moshe insisting that his firstborn be groomed as a pagan priest, there was only one answer that would have been correct – “No!”. It’s unthinkable. When Jews in the Inquisition, or during the Crusades, or in the Soviet Union, or during the Holocaust, were asked to give up their religion, there was only one correct answer – No. When Jews are asked to be unethical, unscrupulous, dishonest or deceiving the answer must simply be – No. If we are thinking about our own agenda and the fulfillment of our personal goals , and then start rationalizing about special circumstances and the greater good – we are looking for serious trouble.
Rav Moshe Feinstein is quoted as saying (in Yiddish) “A mensh darft velen ton, nisht velen ooften.” Our job is to do, not to accomplish. It is basic to Judaism that we must have faith in G-d, and always do the right thing. Let the chips fall where they may.
Dedicated in honor of our old friends Rabbi Yaacov & Bayle Haber,
Richard Berger and family of Buffalo NY