The Pursuit Of Happiness
As identified Jews, our speech and actions reflect on our families and the larger Jewish people.
Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.
Ours is a culture that glories in individuality and autonomy. The foundation documents of the United States affirm the right of each individual to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Pilgrims fled England and Europe, so we are told, to practice religious liberty and to find individual freedom as well.
Justly proud of our national ideals of personal liberty and freedom, we cherish the ability to pursue happiness each in our own way. Even those Americans who came later came in search of economic freedom and personal expression. The ability to move wherever one chose, to work in any field one could, to rise as one's talent could propel a career, speaks still to the core of our ideals as Americans.
While there is certainly merit to that perspective, it reflects a different priority than that of traditional Judaism. Where American law speaks primarily of individual rights, Jewish law emphasizes duties to others. America understands "freedom" as an absence of restraints; Judaism perceives "freedom" as the ability to be fully caring, involved and responsive.
The syntax of the Torah reflects that interdependent notion of human connection. In describing the anonymous man who blasphemes against God, the Torah informs us that "his mother's name was Sh'lomit, the daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan." Why do we need such a lengthy presentation of this anonymous punk's family and kin? Alone, he provoked a fight, and he cursed God alone, so why involve his innocent mother, grandfather and tribe?
The Rabbis of antiquity assumed that the Torah would not waste words on unnecessary information. If the name of the mother and the tribe are there, the Torah must have meant to teach us something. But what would that be? In this unexpected list, Rashi recognizes a message about human responsibility and belonging; "that the wicked bring shame on themselves, their parents and on their tribe."
Similarly, the righteous earn "praise for themselves, praise for their parents and for their tribe." In other words, our deeds implicate those who love us and those who are connected to us through family or through peoplehood. We may think we act alone, but we touch more lives than we know, and our deeds have the power to taint or adorn the lives of those who love us. Each of us affects the reputation of all.