Have you ever been vilified? Or known someone who was? We tend to shake our heads over the person as well as the process, decrying “cancel culture” but believing that the lashon hara’ must have some root in truth.
Our parashat hashavua describes two brothers, twins, who are quite different. One loves the outdoors and becomes a skilled hunter with bow and arrow; the other likes to stay closer to the tents, helping to shepherd the flocks. They might be seen a metaphor for the classic clash we detect between hunter and farmer. There is nothing to suggest in the text that one is evil and one is righteous.
Then comes the family dysfunction. The twins’ mother comes from a family that thought nothing of deception, even among family members; the father was traumatized early by his father’s violence, and seems bereft of volition. Is it any wonder that the woman deceives her husband in order to make sure that the twin she loves better is the inheritor, even though he was born second? Is it surprising that the child she favors goes along with it?
The manipulation of mother and son against father and brother is appalling. The Torah describes the grief of the cheated son and the deceived father in heartrending terms.
The surprising thing is that, for two thousand years of Jewish tradition, our ancestors did everything they could through Midrash and superstition to twist the character of Esau into someone who deserved being cheated. And we are left with this curiosity: a people that holds up the ethical concept of lishpot l’khaf zekhut, always giving someone the benefit of the doubt (until proven otherwise), has gone out of its way to defend the indefensible.
Why does our tradition vilify Esau? It’s a story that we tell to ourselves that answers when other inexplicable hurt. Esau, our bigger and more powerful sibling, becomes associated with Rome, and then with Christianity – bigger, more powerful cultures at whose hands we have suffered Exile, persecution and mass murder. Why would brother Jacob be justified in betraying brother Esau? Only in retrospect; only because the absent, innocent Esau becomes symbolic of evil.
There’s no truth to it, except for the truth that we all hurt, and sometimes we weave elaborate stories about why that end up blaming someone innocent. And then there’s so much riding on that story, so much depending upon it, that we can’t undo it. The person is sacrificed to the place we need them to take for life to make sense to us.
This struggle is at the heart of the long and painful series of incidents, fears, hopes and betrayals that characterize the relationship of Palestinians and Israelis over the past century. Historically, we Jews carry so much trauma that many of us consider distrust of outsiders to be a traditional virtue. In Israel and beyond, Jews draw a line between the 1930s anti-British Hebron riots, in which Arabs massacred Jewish neighbors, all the way to Oslo, and the tradition that grows up around old fears creates new expectations of betrayal and of evil. From Esau to the Mufti of Jerusalem, we’ve woven a way to make sense of our fears, and even today when we behold the injustice of the Occupation which our own Jewish ethics tells us is wrong, some of our people are trapped by the old fears. And others speak only words of condemnation.
We who inherit all this can’t rehabilitate Esau’s reputation, and we can’t convince generations of traumatized Jews that their fears are not real. But perhaps we can be the generation that does not continue to live out of fear; the generation that refocuses us upon judging each person l’khaf zekhut, giving the benefit of the doubt.
An invitation to learn starting December 13 2022: A one-year course on Israel and Palestine
Israel and Palestine: Learn before you Think
The goal of this course is to create a safe learning environment for Jews to discuss and reckon with the complexities of our relationship with Israel. The State of Israel is both the fulfillment of the millennial dream of a homeland for Jews and the cause Palestinian pain and suffering caused by the Israeli government.
There are very few safe spaces for Jews to wrestle with the right and wrong of Zionism without the overlay of antisemitism that magnifies internalized self-hatred and intergenerational trauma. I invite you to join me in a year-long course which will guide participants through a carefully moderated, mutually respectful exploration of the historical, cultural and spiritual link of the Jewish people to Israel and the tragedy of the ongoing Israeli state’s oppression of the people of Palestine. All Jews and those who are learning to become Jews who come from a place of human heartbreak, not demonization, are welcome.
This year-long discussion will culminate in a study tour of Palestine and Israel led by Mejdi Tours, in order to see in person the people and places we’ve learned about, including El Azariyah, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem.
For more information stay tuned to an announcement next week.