Acting with mixed motives

Acting with mixed motives

Vayetzei | Genesis 28:10-32:3

Parshat Vayetzei begins, “Jacob left Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran.” Rashi, citing Bereshit Rabbah, asks why the Torah says, “Jacob left Be’er Sheva.” It could have simply said, “Jacob set out for Haran,” for we certainly know that he was leaving Be’er Sheva, the place where Isaac, Rebecca, and their sons lived. He then explains that it is to tell us that the departure of a righteous person from any place makes an impression and that community is no longer the same.

That’s a nice thought, but Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (Growth Through Torah, 1988), citing hasidic sources, offers a more intriguing answer to our question. He points out that Jacob’s journey had two goals. His mother Rebecca had told him to leave home and go stay with her family in Haran so that his brother Esau would not carry out his threat to kill Jacob for stealing Esau’s blessing. Also, his father, Isaac, had sent him to his uncle’s home to find a suitable bride. As a result, the opening verse tells us that as Jacob set out, he was both leaving a bad situation and going toward hoped-for happiness.

The point is clear — much of what we do is the result of multiple or, if you prefer, mixed motives. Why did you choose your career? Was it because it offered interesting work or the opportunity to make a contribution to society? Did you want to earn a good living or follow in a parent’s footsteps? Were you seeking prestige or was it something for which you had a natural talent? Or was it some combination of these and other reasons?

Why did you decide to have children? Was it a way to express your love for your spouse or to have someone to support you in your old age? Was it something that others expected from you or was it something that you always wanted? Or perhaps there was no single reason.

Why are you reading this column?

Most of us have a hard time explaining, even to ourselves, exactly why we do the things we do. Motives are complex. Like Jacob, we may be simultaneously fleeing one thing and going toward another. Our reasons may be both noble and selfish. We may base our choices on both logic and emotion, all at the same time. That’s normal, and, more than that, it’s perfectly okay.

The Talmud (Nazir 23b) teaches: Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav, “A person should always engage in Torah study and the performance of mitzvot even if it is not for their own sake [i.e., when it is for ulterior motives], for by doing so he will eventually come to do them for their own sake.”

Doing takes precedence over motivation. “Jacob left Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran.” Was he fleeing in fear of his brother’s anger or hurrying eagerly to meet the woman who would become his wife? Perhaps it was both — or neither. We don’t know why he went, but we do know that he did, in fact, go. And that made all the difference.

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