Star Trek, the classic sci-fi show, featured a recurring reference to the “Prime Directive.” This was a rule, binding upon the show’s heroes, which forbade their interference in the internal affairs of the civilizations which they encountered as they explored new star systems and worlds. The idea was to allow these civilizations to develop naturally, untainted by outside influence, no matter how well intended. Whatever the Prime Directive’s merits for driving the plot of a successful television series, this week’s Torah Reading suggests it is not the Jewish ideal.

Jacob is a newcomer freshly arrived in the community where he will shortly meet Rachel and her family. Immediately upon arrival, he finds that the local shepherds have sealed the public well while it is still day. He objects. Rashi explains he argued with the local inhabitants, pointing out that it’s unfair to close up the well before the workday has ended. When Rachel subsequently arrives with her flock, Jacob takes the initiative and unseals the well for her by himself. Jacob, a stranger in a strange land, has no compunction about standing up for what he believes is right, even if it means standing alone. A midrash comments, “From this episode we learn that when a good person goes to a place and sees something not right, he or she must protest and stop it.”

Jewish Law includes a concept called, “An infant raised in captivity.” This law holds that an individual who breaks a rule is not culpable if he or she was raised in “captivity;” meaning in “total ignorance of the rules.” I recall my teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, explaining that this rationale applies only in the realm of ritual law, such as the rules for Shabbat or kashrut. When it comes to rules which have an ethical basis, it is no excuse. Minimal decency is at least minimal, and therefore universal. Even “infants raised in captivity” are expected to behave morally.

B’Yedidut (w/ friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine