This week as we read Parashat Toldot, we find one of the most poignant and tragic moments in the Torah. Jacob has, with his mother’s help and guidance, deceived Isaac so that he gives the blessing intended for his older son Esau, to his younger son, Jacob. When Esau comes inside and approaches his father’s death bed, he discovers what has happened. He cries an agonized cry and then asks what has happened. Isaac explains that he has given his blessing to Jacob. Esau begins to sob and he asks: “Is there not a blessing for me too father?” In those few words we find a son seeking approval, blessing, love from his beloved father and his father has nothing to give him. Eventually, Isaac blesses Esau but his words are harsh and far less than what he gave Jacob a few moments before.
The rabbis of the tradition were as disturbed by this episode as we are today. How can a father treat his son that way? How can a mother be complicit in a deception which favors one son over another? Where is the justice? It seems there is none. But the rabbinic commentators are not satisfied with that answer and they seek to demonize Esau so that the actions of his family are justified. There are midrashim which say that Esau, even in the womb, was an idolator, he moved and kicked whenever his mother passed a pagan temple. They argue that Esau did not care about the future, his birthright or his legacy, that his desires were base and his actions all motivated by the lowest of impulses. They suggest he was not the person who could take on the mantle of leadership and be the progenitor of a great nation. So, through a process of interpretation the rabbis justify the harsh treatment of one son over another by creating a dynamic of good and evil.
How much are we seeing this today: the need to paint every picture in black and white, good and evil? The polarization of people and issues is creating a world which is divided and filled with hate and suffering. Humans are complex creatures, Judaism tells us that within each of us is the drive for both good and bad, we have many shades of grey and when we seek to classify people and categorize them it leads only to the suffering and pain that we see in the story of Esau and Jacob. It is easier to put people in a box, to justify our actions towards them, to use our words to label others but when we fail to see the nuances, to truly try and understand others, we are not really seeing them.
Last week in Israel a Progressive congregation in Ra’anana was vandalized. Graffiti was written on the outside of the building with hateful words from Torah and death threats against prominent Reform Jews in Israel and in America. Tragically, the hate crime was perpetrated by Jews and was incited by rabbis and other prominent Jewish leaders pedaling a message of hate against Jews who choose to practice their religion differently from them. Just as with Esau in the Torah, they have demonized the other to the extent that they justify acts of violence and hatred against them. Anat Hoffman, a passionate advocate for Progressive Judaism wrote: “I have never lost my resolve to continue doing what I believe is right but the idea that someone would want to kill me over a difference in religious practice is really beyond comprehension.”
It is time for us to call out the hateful speech, to not allow words which demonize those who are not like us to go unchallenged, and we need to look at our own discourse and ensure it is always from a place of respectful disagreement, not only seeing the black and white but also the shades of grey. If we do so, we can create a world of peace and harmony rather than one of conflict, division and pain.