As political and social discourse have become increasingly polarized across the world over the last several years, I have become polarized myself. Certain buzzwords will trigger an anger response in me, to the point where I find it impossible to trust in the goodwill or joint interests of people who, unapologetically, hold a position that is different from mine. The tragedy of Simchat Torah this year and the war in Israel that has followed it, has only increased the number of issues that make me shut down, shut out, and shut off any position that challenges (read threatens) my own. This polarization of my personal discourse is not a positive or even a neutral development. It is clear to me that it is a failing that must be rectified. Yet, I don’t feel motivated to take steps to correct myself. I suspect that this conundrum may resonate with other people.
The Rabbis despise Esau. They despise him as a character and as a stand-in for their oppressors, the Roman army and government. A survey of the sixty fifth chapter of Bereshit Raba, which deals parashat Toldot, reveals the following midrashim:
- After living a life of unbridled licentiousness, Esau’s marries at 40, seeking to emulate his righteous father (to a woman named Yehudit, no less). The Rabbis compare this to a pig who, while wallowing in filth, extends its cleft hooves, as if to say, ‘Look! I’m kosher!’
- God makes Isaac go blind so that he will be spared from walking out in public and hearing people say, ‘There goes the father of that Rasha.’
- Isaac may refer to Esau as his “greater son” (b’no hagadol) but God knows that Esau and the nations spawned by him are nothing more than the “least of nations”.
In the midst of this flurry of criticism and disgust, a midrash appears that treats Esau differently (65:15):
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: I attended my father all my days, and I did not attend him one one-hundredth of what Esau attended his father. When I would attend my father, I attended him with dirty garments, but when I would go out on the road, I would go out with clean garments. But Esau, when he would attend his father, he would attend him only with royal garments. He said: ‘It is not in keeping with Father’s honor to attend him in anything other than royal garments.’
Without pause, the Rabbis then return immediately to a criticism of Esau’s wives.
What does it mean to discover that in the midst of our disagreement on our most basic values, we find that we have something in common. Esau honored his father. Romans honor their parents. We could trivialize this single redeeming quality: “Esau might have honored his father but it doesn’t change his essential character.” It doesn’t seem that the Rabbis take this tack. In the Talmudic discussion of honoring one’s parents (Kiddushin 31a) they tell the following story:
How far must one go to fulfill the mitzva of honoring one’s father and mother? Rav Ulla said to them: Go and see what one gentile did in Ashkelon, and his name was Dama ben Netina. Once the Sages sought to purchase merchandise [perakmatya] from him for six hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit, but the key for the container in which the merchandise was kept was placed under his father’s head, and he was sleeping at the time. And Dama ben Netina would not disturb his father by waking him, although he could have made a substantial profit.
The Rabbis actually make the Romans their models for best practices in honoring one’s parents.
Is this enough to end the polarization that I feel whenever I encounter people who disagree with me on certain key issues in American and Israeli politics? Is finding a common value enough to let me see through my fear and rage to the human being behind the opinion? It doesn’t seem to have been enough for the Rabbis. Their distrust and disgust of Esau and the Romans never dissipates, despite having acknowledged the excellence of the Roman parental honor.
I think, though, that it might be enough for me. I feel less angry and distrustful of Esau having seen that he, like I, value his father. I feel motivated to think about his character is a different, more generous way. I don’t know how far that extends towards my feelings about the Romans. But maybe step by step is the way forward. First recognize shared values with people I disagree with, even about the most fundamental things. Next, allow that recognition to motivate me to open lines of communication. Once I can see some common ground, maybe I can work towards appreciating larger groups as well. Maybe that’s the way out.