"You're holy, but you stink!" That's what the village children would yell at the bechor (first-born animal) who would often be seen wandering about the shtetel.

(According to Torah law, the firstborn young of a kosher domestic animal must be brought as an offering in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Even when conditions do not allow this — as has been the case since the Temple's destruction more than 1900 years ago — the firstborn animal retains its sacred status, and it is forbidden to eat it or make use of it in any way. In the shtetel, where raising a few head of cattle or a small herd of goats was common practice, these animals would run loose, getting into everything and wreaking general havoc. And since they could not be shorn or groomed, their stench was quite unbeareable).

The lesson in this is that something holy can also stink. You might be this really pious guy, but if people hold their noses when you walk by, you're doing something wrong. In the words of one of the greatest sages in Jewish history, Rabbi Judah HaNassi: "Which is the right path for a person to choose for himself? What is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for one's fellow man."

In the 29th chapter of Genesis we read of Jacob's marriages to Leah and Rachel.

Jacob loved Rachel, the younger of his uncle Laban's two daughters. Laban agrees to give him Rachel's hand in marriage in return for seven years' labor. Jacob keeps his side of the bargain, but Laban tricks him: the veiled bride given to Jacob is Rachel's older sister, Leah, and Jacob discovers the deception only the next morning. Laban agrees to let him marry Rachel, too, in return for another seven years of shepherding his flocks.

Marrying more than one wife was common practice in biblical times, and permissible under Jewish law until a rabbinical ordinance forbade it about one thousand years ago. But the Torah expressly forbids to marry two sisters. And while the laws of the Torah were officially commanded to Jewish people at Mount Sinai many years after Jacob's marriages, the Talmud tells us that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob observed the Torah even before it was decreed at Sinai. So why did Jacob marry two sisters, contrary to the code of behavior he had accepted upon himself?

This question is asked by many of the Torah commentaries, and many interesting and innovative explanations are given. The Lubavitcher Rebbe discusses several of these explanations, raises some legal objections to each of them, and then offers a profoundly simple explanation of his own: Jacob married Rachel because he had promised her that he would.

To accept upon yourself a moral standard beyond what is required by law, explains the Rebbe, is a noble and desirable thing — as long as it only involves a sacrifice on your part. But if your pious conduct also imposes hardship and suffering on others, you must then ask yourself: what right do I have to aspire to greater spiritual merit at another's expense?

Not to marry Rachel, after she had waited seven years in promise of a life together, would have caused her grievous hurt and insult. (To divorce Leah, in addition to the hurt and insult to her this would have involved, would not have solved the problem — the Torah's prohibition against marrying two sisters applies also to the sister of one's living divorcee). Since Jacob was not obligated to obey the biblical prohibition against marrying two sisters, he had no right to accept upon himself a higher set of values if it was at the expense of another human being.

How pious should you be? As pious as you can. As long as it's only you who's paying the price.