Should we apply today’s standards to the heroes of the past? Historians have debated this issue for the last century. Some subscribe to “presentism”, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a bias towards the present or present-day attitudes, esp. in the interpretation of history.” Those who critique presentism dismiss it as offering politically driven anachronistic readings of history. Carefully nuanced debates regarding presentism are found in academic journals; but today, the debates of presentism are just as likely to be found in tabloid headlines, with angry clashes about the proper place of historical figures and public statues.
Presentism is always at issue when reading the Tanakh; already in the rabbinic period, there were attempts to read halakhic practice back into the actions of the Patriarchs, to make their behaviour conform with religious norms. Today, some readers take the opposite view, and assume the Biblical characters must be benighted and bigoted, incapable of offering anything relevant to say on contemporary issues.
This debate is critical for reading the end of this week’s parsha. In the final years of the famine in Egypt, the Egyptians beg Yoseph for food. Initially, they offer Yoseph their silver; once that runs out, Yoseph accepts their livestock, and then their property. Eventually, they offer themselves to Yoseph as slaves in return for food, and the entire population is moved to new homes, to work the fields as Pharaoh’s sharecroppers.
It is puzzling that Yoseph’s political policies are included in the Torah. This slice of ancient Egyptian history seems irrelevant to the ordinary reader of the Tanakh; why would the Torah include a lengthy passage with seemingly no connection to Jewish history?
Contemporary interpreters read this section as a silent rebuke of Yoseph; blinded by his loyalty to Pharaoh, he inadvertently establishes Egyptian slavery. These critics see Yoseph’s policies of economic centralization and state imposed slavery as setting the stage for enslaving the Jews. Moshe Pava focuses on the economic aspects of Yoseph’s policies; based on Friedman and Hayek, and he argues that Yoseph’s misuse of insider knowledge and his misguided economic policies led Egypt on the road to serfdom. Uriel Simon focuses on the ethical dimension, and sees Yoseph's advocacy of slavery as fundamentally unethical; he also criticizes Yoseph’s granting of special privileges to his family. Aaron Wildavsky and David Sabato offer interbiblical critiques of Yoseph. Wildavsky points out the contrast between Yoseph and Moshe; Yoseph builds the Egyptian empire and institutes slavery, while Moshe abolishes slavery and defeats the Egyptian empire. Among the points Sabato adds is that Yoseph’s actions run counter to the Torah’s emphasis that land should never be sold permanently, because all land belongs to God.
Yoseph’s policies are included in the Torah as a cautionary tale. He imagines he will protect his family by increasing Pharaoh’s power; the opposite results, and his policies pave the way for their future sorrow. Had Yoseph taken a more enlightened view of politics and economics, the Jews might have had a different experience in Egypt.
The classical commentaries to the Torah offer a contrasting view. The Ramban exemplifies this perspective when he writes “The Torah relates this…entire section in order to make known Yoseph's excellence in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge; and that he was a faithful man in that he brought all money into Pharaoh's house and did not accumulate for himself treasures of money and secret hiding places for wealth”. Other commentaries see Yoseph as protecting the ordinary Egyptian; Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon explains that the Egyptians were the initiators of all of these transactions, because they desired the protection of the state during a time of crisis, under the exceptional benevolence of Yoseph. Rashi offers a further motive for Yoseph’s actions. Yaakov and his children were newcomers, and would have ultimately been rejected by the general population; by moving all Egyptians from place to place, Yoseph hoped to help his family fit in.
These commentaries see Yoseph’s motivations as wholesome. He was loyal to Pharaoh, benevolent to the Egyptian people, and did his best to care for his family. If anything, by extolling Yoseph’s achievements, the text emphasizes the ingratitude of a future Pharaoh who will forget Yoseph’s contributions to the Egyptian empire.
For many years, I was attracted by the contemporary reading of this text. I dismissed interpretations that praised Yoseph’s economic policies as apologetics, a futile attempt to make a biblical hero look better. I only recently realized that my understanding of the text had been badly distorted by presentism. The commentators who lived in feudal societies and autocratic monarchies better understood what Yoseph’s actual situation was like, and they could walk a mile in Yoseph’s shoes. It is too easy to criticize Yoseph's decisions while sitting in the comfy confines of 20th century western democracy, without the spectre of famines, Pharaohs and prejudice. But Yoseph was living in a different era, and he had to make his decisions based on the political and economic realities of his time. His situation is not just different from our own; it is quite different from Moshe’s, who had the full power of divine authority behind him. Moshe can attempt to revolutionize the world, and introduce a new moral code. And even Moshe doesn't always succeed.
Both readings have an important role in understanding this text. We need to recognize both what was wrong about Yoseph’s situation, and what was right about Yoseph the leader. The very point of Moshe’s revolution is to improve the present, to pursue justice, uproot slavery and protect human dignity; it is not mere anachronism to recognize how we would do things differently today. At the same time, we should recognize how Yoseph’s actions were heroic, considering where he was and the situation he was in. Morally clear and morally compromised situations require distinct methods of moral leadership.
What should one do in Yoseph's situation? There are times when there are no perfect options, when the best one can do is far from ideal; in these cases, the right choice is to follow the advice of the Pirkei Avot: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”. And that is what Yoseph did. He knew that Egypt had always been a moral quagmire, and would eventually become a house of slavery. But that did not exempt him from doing his best at that moment. He labored to insure stability and sustenance for all Egyptians, and a comfortable exile for the next three generations of his family.
There are good decisions that don't have good outcomes, and there are heroic choices that don’t elicit cheers. We cannot ignore that Yoseph was a hero in his generation; but the work doesn’t end there, and we must always continue to build a better world for future generations.
Ambivalence has a bad reputation for very good reasons. It is associated with fear and failure, the Hamletesque desire to deliberate rather than decide. On the battlefield, an ambivalent soldier is a dangerous liability; in a relationship, ambivalence erodes commitment, and pulls the couple apart. It is difficult to be decisive, because every decision carries risk; but strong leaders need to be courageous, and push forward anyway.
Our Torah reading offers a different picture of ambivalence. Every commentary wonders: what was Yoseph's plan after meeting his brothers? Over the course of five chapters, we watch an unusual plot unfold, a long and twisting narrative that resists interpretation. Multiple commentaries labor strenuously to organize Yoseph’s actions into a coherent plan. Perhaps Yoseph was motivated by vengeance. Perhaps he was testing the brothers to see if they had changed. Perhaps he wanted to bring Binyamin to live with him in Egypt. Or, as the Ramban suggests, Yoseph felt compelled to fulfill his childhood dreams, and was manipulating his family in order to bring his father and brothers to Egypt and bow to him.
These competing theories arise because Yoseph’s behavior is so perplexing; there is no obvious motivation for his actions. Yoseph constantly vacillates. At times he is a harsh Egyptian viceroy prosecuting suspected spies; at other times, he is a kind brother who releases them from jail, overfills their bags, and returns their money. On their second visit, Yoseph invites the brothers for a meal in his home and gives them gifts, and returns their money once again; at the same time he frames Binyamin as a thief. During each visit Yoseph is moved to tears by his reawakened love for his brothers; but he immediately turns aside and covers up the tears. Yoseph is the very picture of a man torn in two.
I would argue that ambivalence is the best explanation for Yoseph’s behaviour. Surprised by his brothers, Yoseph found himself of two minds, uncertain which direction to take. Emotionally, he felt both rage at, and love for, his brothers. More significantly, with the brothers arrival, Yoseph’s social standing was threatened; the powerful Egyptian viceroy was afraid of being exposed as a Hebrew, who were despised by Egyptians.
Yoseph was the first crypto-Jew, a hidden Hebrew in the court of Pharaoh. During the nine years that he was in power, Yoseph made no attempt to reach out to his father Yaakov. The simplest explanation for this is the most obvious one: Yoseph didn’t want to reunite with his father, and preferred to leave his past behind. David Henschke points out the Midrash Tanchuma, which remarks that Yoseph settles right in when he arrives in Egypt, and proudly forgets his father’s home. Yoseph’s desire to burn bridges with the past is reflected in the name of his first-born Menassheh, which means “God has made me forget my hardship and my parental home.” And forget is exactly what Yoseph does. When interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, he confidently says “as for Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, it means that...God will soon carry it out”, oblivious to the fact that thirteen years earlier, he himself had also had the same dream twice, yet nothing happened. Yoseph left behind a traumatic childhood, and replaced it with amnesia and affluence.
Then the brothers arrive, and Yoseph is confronted with repressed memories. He is torn between his desire to protect his status and an unexpected longing for his family. Now he wants to take two opposing courses of action at the same time; he wants to remain anonymous, yet at the same time ensure that the brothers keep returning to him. Yoseph betrays his inner worries when he charges his brothers with being spies; like spies, his brothers know sensitive secrets about him. And so Yoseph vacillates, sometimes speaking like an Egyptian, and at other times like a Jew. He takes an oath to Pharaoh’s life, and declares that his goblet was used for divination, a pagan practice forbidden by the Torah. At other times, when he is more compassionate, Yoseph speaks about how he fears God. Yoseph alternates between the theological language of Egypt and Israel.
The perfect metaphor for Yoseph’s split identity is found in the eating arrangements when he shares a meal with his brothers. The Hebrews and Egyptians sit apart, per Egyptian custom, which treats Hebrews as inferior. But Yoseph sits alone, in a no man's land between the Egyptians and the Hebrews, unable to eat with either. Yoseph is ambivalent, uncertain if he belongs with Egyptian royalty or with his brothers.
Yet it is precisely because of this ambivalence that Yoseph can reunite with his family. After nine years in power, after twenty-two years apart from his family, Yoseph refuses to make the quick decision to send his brothers away. Yes, Yoseph’s ambivalence is turbulent and frightening; but it is also constructive, and sets the stage for an exceptional conclusion to the story. For Yoseph, ambivalence is the way-station on the road to repentance.
Ambivalence can be constructive. Hesitation, deliberation, and vacillation are often the first stops on the road to personal change. Transformation begins when a person accepts a new perspective; most of the time, that only happens gradually. Before making a change, people will hold more than one point of view at the same time, and jump between them. Ralph Waldo Emerson, when critiquing thoughtless conformity, said "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." There is a limit to the value of decisiveness; it can often hold people back from solving problems and considering new possibilities. Without ambivalence, change is often impossible.
In a leadership driven culture like our own, ambivalence seems weak and cowardly, the product of passivity and procrastination. We respect quick and clear decisions, and the Mishnah’s recommendation ‘to be slow to judgment” seems too wishy washy. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t; and the value of ambivalence is that it offers an opportunity to consider alternatives, resist conformity, and embrace innovation. Yoseph teaches us that change is only possible when a person is unafraid to be of two minds.
didn't always worry about sibling rivalry. Peter Stearns of Carnegie Mellon
University, in an article entitled “The Rise of Sibling Jealousy in the 20th
Century,” argues that in the 19th century, adults showed little awareness of
jealousy among their children. Stearns reviewed multiple books, articles and
materials about child rearing written from the 1800s onward; and the topic of
sibling rivalry only began to appear in the 1920s, when it suddenly became a
significant focus of parenting experts. But this interest was short lived. By
the 1960s, the pendulum had swung back in the other direction, with sibling
rivalry being relegated to a few paragraphs in parenting manuals. (Now, there
is almost as much space devoted to getting pets ready for the new child).
Stearns sees several factors behind the explosion of concern about sibling
rivalry in the mid-20th century. One factor was the shift in family structure
from larger, multigenerational households to the nuclear family; and that
nuclear family was having fewer children as well. Parental affection was now
narrowly focused on fewer children, and those children vied with each other for
the spotlight. More significant is that jealousy, the driving emotion of
sibling rivalry, became a greater societal concern; the rise of larger
bureaucratic organizations, corporate, social and governmental, required
employees to work well together. Jealousy was seen as a character defect that
prevents someone from being a functioning adult; if left unchecked, the jealous
sibling might end up a failure, unable to work well with others. But prior to
the 1920s, sibling rivalry was often overlooked; and Sigmund Freud, the father
of modern psychology, focused primarily on the parent-child relationship as the
crucible of personal development. Freud almost completely ignored sibling
rivalry, seeing it as a trivial issue.
Sefer Bereishit takes a very different view on sibling rivalry, which is one of its primary themes. Puzzled by a verse in Shir HaShirim that describes the beauty of brotherly love, the Midrash asks: “When have we seen brothers love each other? Cain murders Abel... Yishmael hates Yitzchak... Esav hates Yaakov...and the brothers hate Yoseph”. The Midrash is correct; in Sefer Bereishit, brothers always hate each other. (And the one pair of sisters, Leah and Rachel, stand as hostile rivals to each other as well.) Failed sibling relationships stand at the center of Sefer Bereishit.
One of Freud's critics, Alfred Adler, emphasized the influence of siblings, and in particular, saw birth order as critical to personality development. Frank Sulloway, in his book Born to Rebel, utilizes birth order to explain the attitude of various intellectuals to scientific revolutions. Like Adler, Sulloway sees birth order as having a dramatic impact on personality, forcing each child to diversify their interests in order to find their own niche. Sulloway offers a portrait of firstborns as being conservatives and protectors of tradition, latter-borns as rebels and innovators, and middle-borns as being compromisers who bring people together.
Our Torah reading offers a very different depiction of the latter-born. Yoseph is the protector of tradition. He is the representative of his father, the one who informs his father of his brothers’ misdeeds, and the one sent to check on his brothers while they are away from home. To signify his unique status, Yoseph is given a special coat by his father. In some ways, the brothers attempt to murder Yoseph is actually a rebellion against their father Yaakov; it is Yaakov’s favorite Yoseph who stands ready to protect his father’s interests.
Most fascinating is the Torah’s depiction of sibling rivalry; it is only present in certain families, and is seen as the product of family and cultural dynamics. There is a difficult textual anomaly in the narrative about the sale of Yoseph; it is not at all clear to whom Yoseph was sold. In the text, the nationality of the buyers constantly changes; in different verses, they are called Ishmaelites, Midianites and Medanites. There are multiple theories to explain this discrepancy, but one of the more straightforward ones is offered by the Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi. He writes that Ishmaelites, Midianites and Medanites are interchangeable, because their ancestors Ishamel, Midian and Medan are all children of Avraham’s concubines; afterwards, the families of these half-brothers intermarried, and their clans became indistinguishable from each other. One can choose to call this group people either Ishmaelite, Midianite or Medanite, because they had become one united clan.
To a serious reader of the Tanakh, the Radak’s comment is unsatisfying. Why would the text be so sloppy, constantly switching the terminology it uses for the same group? Indeed, the constant switching appears to be intentional, as if the text is flagging this point for particular attention.
I believe that the switching signals a comparison. The Radak is correct that the clans of these half-brothers united as one; and that is precisely the point. Three clans, descendents of half- brothers have such a close relationship that you could use any name for them interchangeably! This offers an invidious comparison with Yaakov’s family; here, these brothers are ready to murder Yoseph. (It should be noted that the other time in the Tanakh where Ishmaelite and Midianite is used interchangeably, regarding Gideon, is also related to fratricide.) The Ishmaelites, Midianites and Medanites are examples of what brothers could be, and highlight exactly what Yoseph and his brothers are not.
But why is it that Yoseph and his brothers suffer from such terrible sibling rivalry while other brothers get along so well? Certainly, Yaakov does play a role. The Talmud says that “due to two sela of fine wool that Yaakov gave to Yoseph (i.e., the striped coat), his brothers became jealous of him and ultimately it ended up with our forefathers going in exile to Egypt.” But this dynamic goes beyond parental favoritism. The striped coat is more than just a coat; it is a symbol of a birthright. And Yoseph and his brothers have a birthright worth fighting over. While Ishmael, Midian and Medan are sent away from their father's home, Yoseph and his brothers know that their family has a unique destiny, a divine birthright, that each brother wants for himself. The blessing God gave Avraham's family has a dark side, because it comes with the curse of jealousy and envy. This is why since the days of Cain and Abel, brothers have fought over being God's chosen one.
Another possibility is that Ishmael and his half-brothers were all rejected. They had felt the sting of crisis and loss, and learned how critical it is to band together. When you expect something to be given to you by your parents, you are your brother’s competitor; when you start from nothing and need to find your own way in the world, your brother is your close companion. The Ishmaelites, Midianites and Medanites need each other, otherwise they will never succeed. But Yaakov’s sons are the chosen ones, and discord immediately follows. The sons of different mothers, they each adopt their mother’s grievances; they further divide by who is the son of a full wife and who is the son of a concubine. The situation is so tense, that if one immature son mentions his dreams of taking everything over, his brothers think seriously about murdering him. In our Parsha, sibling rivalry is the product of privilege.
The story of Yoseph and his brothers is not just about one family; it reflects concerns about the future of the Jewish people. How does a nation endowed with a unique destiny avoid killing each other over a divine birthright? One of the great lessons of Judaism is that without humility, without a sense of respect for those around you, family, community and nation will be torn apart. Ultimately the brothers will descend to Egypt, and learn that their enemies care little about their internal family squabbles. The Midrash explains it is in Egypt that we first see a set of brothers who love each other: Moshe and Aharon. (And even they don’t always get along.) It is in the desperation of slavery that the family of Yaakov learns how to be the Bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel.
Our unique destiny can exacerbate sibling rivalry; but our shared fate reminds us never to pull apart. Yoseph and his brothers are a cautionary tale for the Jewish future, to remind us that family comes first, and we cannot allow our greatest blessing to become our biggest curse.
The Hebrew word for “kiss”, “vayishakehu,” has unique scribal marks above it; there is a dot above each letter. The commentaries ponder what these dots mean. Rashi, quoting a second century Midrash writes, "Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai said: It is a rule that Esav hates Yaakov; however, (these marks indicate that) at that moment Esav’s compassion was aroused, and he kissed Yaakov with all of his heart." Rashi’s phrase, "Halakhah Esav soneh l'Yaakov," "It is a rule that Esav hates Yaakov," has influenced the Jewish view of antisemitism ever since. In rabbinic literature, Yaakov and Esav are seen as archetypes, with Esav representing the Roman Empire and all subsequent Western civilizations; the actions of Yaakov and Esav foreshadow all future interactions between their descendants. If it is a “rule that Esav hates Yaakov,” that means that antisemitism is a metaphysical reality, and the spiritual heirs of Esav will always hate the descendants of Yaakov. Antisemitism will never end.
This idea is profoundly influential. It excludes the possibility of any rapprochement between Jews and non-Jews, and would see any attempt at mutual understanding as an exercise in futility. “Halakhah Esav soneh l'Yaakov" is an oft quoted phrase, and even referenced in multiple Halakhic rulings. Many Jews are pessimists, certain that antisemitism will never end.
This pessimism is not absurd. David Nirenberg, in his book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, offers an intellectual history of how imaginary criticisms of Judaism, or anti-Judaism, were used through the ages as a way for people to make sense of their own beliefs and lives. He observes that within Western culture there is a recurring theme, one borrowed from generation to generation, that Judaism represents what is erroneous and corrupt. This interpretation is not all that different from “Halakhah Esav soneh l'Yaakov”; both see antisemitism as a perpetual reality.
Throughout Jewish history, pessimism has had a profound impact on the Jewish psyche. Commenting on Esav's kiss of Yaakov, Rabbi Obadiah Seforno, a 15th century Italian rabbi, writes that this section "is of great concern to us, seeing that we live among the descendants of Esav...Yaakov’s conduct vis a vis Esav teaches that the only way to escape the sword of Esav is through subservience and gifts." Centuries later, in March 1977, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used “Halakhah Esav soneh l’Yaakov'' as the basis of a halakhic ruling. He wrote that it would be wrong for the British Jewish community to sue their government in court for day school subsidies, because that will anger the government. One must avoid causing animosity among non-Jews, because Esav can easily be provoked to hate Yaakov. A few weeks earlier, in two letters responding to the renewed interest in Jewish-Catholic dialogue after the Second Vatican Council, Rabbi Feinstein makes his pessimism clear; to him, religious dialogue is simply antisemitism by other means, an attempt by the Catholic Church to lure Jews into conversion. Pessimists treat non-Jewish society warily, keeping a careful distance. They often prefer to keep quiet and stay safe.
But pessimism can turn into activism as well. Theodor Herzl became a Zionist because he had arrived at the conclusion that antisemitism would never end. He had seen the crowds roar in support of Karl Lueger, the viciously antisemitic mayor of Vienna. He had seen the crowds chant “Death to the Jews” at the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. Herzl realized that the Jews needed to escape the antisemitism of Europe immediately; he noted bitterly that “Everything tends, in fact, to one and the same conclusion, which is clearly enunciated in that classic Berlin phrase: "Juden Raus!" (Out with the Jews!).” I shall now put the question in the briefest possible form: Are we to "get out" now, and where to?” Herzl recognized, well before anyone else, that the Jews in Europe needed a safe haven.
Herzl’s Zionism was the product of pessimism about antisemitism. And for much of the 20th century, the pessimists were right. Ruth Wisse relates a quote from a friend of hers: "We used to say that there were two kinds of German Jews: the pessimists who went to Palestine, and the optimists who went to Auschwitz." Not all pessimists were sheepish and passive; some recognized that they had to take matters into their own hands, and find a home of their own.
Optimists offer a very different reading of Esav’s kiss. Both the Netziv and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in their commentary on this passage, see the kiss as a moment of reconciliation - and both see it a harbinger of peace, of a future time when antisemitism will finally come to an end. R. Hirsch writes: "This kiss and tears show Esav, too, as a grandson of Abraham... Esav too, will gradually lay down his sword; more and more he will make room for humaneness..." Rabbi Feinstein’s older colleague, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, wrote in a 1968 sermon that "it is a criminal sin that those prattling, preachy sermonizers constantly expound that it is ‘a rule that Esav hates Yaakov,’ and that is an eternal hatred. This is against the truth, against rabbinic literature, and against what the Biblical text says…'' Instead, he argues that with kindness, one can turn an enemy into a friend. In an earlier Yiddish lecture, he notes that the Torah says, “Thou shalt not despise an Edomite,” even though we are commanded to destroy Edom’s close relative Amalek. This, he says, should guide Jewish reactions to offers of forgiveness and rapprochement from Chancellor Adenauer and the German government; hatred of Nazis should not lead to hatred of Germans. R. Henkin's statement is particularly dramatic, given it was made at a time when most Jews wouldn't touch a German product or speak to a German person. Optimists have always believed that humanity can transcend the antisemitism of the past.
Pessimism holds one advantage over optimism: a pessimist is never disappointed, while optimists are disappointed all the time. For those who are long term optimists about antisemitism, (and I must include myself among them), the last few years have been particularly painful. We have endured the largest mass murder of Jews on American soil at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, followed by other acts of anti-Semitic bloodshed in Poway, Monsey and Jersey City. On campuses, students are bullied by an insidious antisemitism, which hides under the guise of anti-Zionism. Nirenberg, at the end of his book notes, "We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of “Israel.” Israel has become the Jew among the nations, the obsessive focus of those who believe that humanity can be redeemed by dismantling the Jewish state. It is incredibly disappointing today to be an optimist about antisemitism.
Yet, I feel it is critical to remain an optimist about antisemitism. In January 2011 my synagogue in Montreal was vandalized, along the several others, in an anti-Semitic attack; late one Saturday night, someone threw a rock through a large synagogue window. My initial reaction was a common one in the Jewish community. I thought to myself that this attack was something minor. A broken window is just a headache, several hundreds of dollars in damage and a five-minute cleanup. Many of us shrug off petty attacks like this all the time, realizing that they don’t even merit a footnote in the history of antisemitism. And my initial thinking was as a pessimist: we need to accept occasional harassment as the cost of being Jewish. But when I got home I changed my attitude. I sat down for breakfast, with my children running in and out of the room, and I realized that this broken window is a lot more than any other broken window. The perpetrators of this attack threw rocks at synagogues because they hated Jews, including me, my wife, and my children. I still shudder to think of what these perpetrators would have done had they found one of my children alone in a dark alley. I realized then that pessimism is wrong; we cannot allow the story of “Esav hates Yaakov” to be our children’s story. We must confront and condemn antisemitism, and at the same time, advocate and educate for mutual understanding. We cannot give up.
I am still unsure if Esav will ever love us again; but we have hugged and kissed before, and with hope, perhaps we can do so again.
It is easy to be swept up by the emotional power of the first narrative in our Torah reading. Yaakov, who is running for his life, is suddenly homeless and hopeless; he lies down to sleep in the middle of nowhere, with the ground as his bed and a stone as his pillow. He has a powerful vision, with angels walking up and down a ladder and God calling out to him, offering blessings of protection and redemption. Yaakov awakens overawed by his dream; he names that place Beit El, the house of God, and dedicates the stone he slept on as a monument to be used for divine service. Yaakov promises he will return to Beit El to build a house of worship, one that will be used by future generations.
But this plan is not meant to be. When we skip forward to the Book of Kings, we see that the site of Yaakov’s dream is desecrated. After the Kingdom of Israel splits, Jeroboam refuses to let the people of the Northern Kingdom return to the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, he builds a competing Temple in Beit El, along with competing holidays, and installs two golden calves for worship. Beit El fails to live up to its original promise.
Even more dramatic is the Torah's change in attitude towards monuments. Yaakov sees his holy monument as the foundation of a future Temple; but in Deuteronomy (16:22), monuments are not just forbidden, but condemned as a mode of worship that “the Lord your God detests." What is loved by Yaakov will be rejected by the Torah of Moshe. Many commentaries struggle to resolve this contradiction. Rashi offers a fascinating interpretation, and writes, "Although monuments were pleasing to God in the days of our Patriarchs, He now hates them, because the Canaanites made monuments a fixed rule in their worship of idols." It doesn’t matter that monuments have a deep historical connection to Jewish worship; if they are now used by the Canaanites for idol worship, they are to be rejected.
Rashi's insight is profound. Our Jewish identity is not just about who we are; it is also about who we aren’t. Elsewhere, the Torah forbids imitating the practices of idolaters, a prohibition called Chukat Akum. This Rashi is cited as an example of how far this law extends; even if a practice is a long held Jewish custom, it can still be prohibited as Chukat Akum if it is similar to idolatrous practices. Chukat Akum insists a Jew must make a point of being different than others. This prohibition of reaction and negation might seem strange because contemporary spirituality is always expressed in affirmations. But Chukat Akum reminds us that an authentic identity is not just about what you choose to be, it is also about what you choose not to be.
In the diaspora, the laws of Chukat Akum have been critical to maintaining communal cohesion. One school of thought in rabbinic literature saw Chukat Akum as primarily about separatism, of distinguishing Jews from non-Jews. Maimonides expresses this view when he writes that "We may not follow the statutes of the idolaters or resemble them in their [style] of dress, coiffure, or the like…" In another passage, Maimonides offers another example, that the prohibition includes saying that “Since they go out wearing purple, so too I will go out wearing purple.” Rabbi Israel Bruna, a 15th century German Rabbi, sees separation as the reason for Chukat Akum. Even though the Talmud makes it clear that men do not have to cover their heads, Rabbi Bruna writes that Jews of his time had to wear a head covering for otherwise they “will not be distinguishable among the non-Jews.” He explains that what was permitted by the Talmud would not be allowed in times of exile, when it is critical for a Jewish minority to establish an independent and separate identity.
Among the medieval authorities, there is a competing school of thought, one of selectivity. It sees rationality as the determining principle of whether or not a practice is considered Chukat Akum. What is prohibited are practices that reflect paganism, superstition and indecency. Beth Berkowitz points out in Defining Jewish Difference: From Antiquity to the Present, that in medieval Jewish-Christian polemics, Jews would often refer to the rationality of the Jewish tradition in contrast with that of Christianity; and that may have influenced how the law of Chukat Akum was perceived as well.
This definition of Chukat Akum offers a different lesson; the goal is for Jews to take a critical eye to every new practice and reject foolish customs. This will ensure that one doesn’t unconsciously assimilate unworthy pagan perspectives.
This debate was less important when Jews were largely excluded from communal life. But as Jews began to enter general society in the Renaissance, Chukat Akum was debated once again amongst halakhic authorities. Does Jewish identity require one to always be different, even in dress, language and culture?
Around 1460, Rabbis Judah Messer Leon and Samuel de Modena posed a halakhic question to the Maharik, Rabbi Joseph Colon Trabbotto. Both had been given the privilege of wearing academic gowns; but local critics said that the academic gown was a violation of Chukat Akum, because it is an imitation of non-Jewish dress. The Maharik ruled that the gown was permissible. He disputes the idea that Jews must dress differently than others, and adds that the academic gown is rational, and allows people to be recognized for their achievements. The Maharik’s ruling best articulates the philosophy of selectivity, and gains wide acceptance. But some later authorities, including the Gaon of Vilna, dispute the Maharik’s ruling.
Even the celebration of Thanksgiving is forbidden by some authorities. Rav Yitzchak Hutner writes that it is forbidden because one must resist any desire to imitate the customs of general society. This ruling is striking in its extremism; even Thanksgiving, a celebration based on the virtue of gratitude, in appreciation of a country that has done so much for the Jewish community, is considered to be anathema. However, many rabbis disagree. Affirming what is good is a critical value as well, and Thanksgiving represents values cherished by the Jewish tradition. (For precisely this reason, KJ used to hold a special Thanksgiving prayer service.) To be a Jew in the 21st century requires one to carefully select, to affirm what is positive, and to reject what is negative in general society.
Since the early 1800s, it has become possible for Jews to fully engage in general society. To accomplish this, some argued that Jews need to blend in and stop being different. Judah Leib Gordon, in his poem “Hakitzah” (Awaken), famously wrote:
“Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home.”
This is very comfortable advice. Turning Judaism into a private affair hidden behind closed doors makes it much easier to be part of a minority; there is no standing out in public spaces, no uncomfortable glances from strangers. Unfortunately, this approach has been spiritual quicksand. What was carefully hidden became unimportant, and what was private became a mere hobby. Without a strong and independent identity, Jews slowly assimilated. It became the path of least resistance.
Chukat Akum is a reminder that one cannot just be a Jew at home; sometimes a Jew needs to be a Jew in the streets, to resist fads and fashions. That is part of our mission. Jews have been iconoclasts from the very beginning, from the moment that Avraham smashed his father’s idols; and we are ready to smash Yaakov's monument as well. As a minority, we must know who we aren’t as well as who we are. But how far do we have to go in distinguishing ourselves? That still is a matter of debate.
Esav is a problem child from the very beginning. The Bible carefully catalogues the failings of his early years. He is a hunter, a violent job that contrasts sharply with a family preference for shepherding -- and in an act of extreme impulsiveness, he sells the sacred privilege of the first born for a bowl of lentils. His choice of wives is inappropriate, marrying coarse women from the local Canaanites, and in his fury, he vows to murder his brother.
It is clear that Esav was fated to be a failure. The Midrash says that even in utero, Esav would jump every time his mother passed a pagan temple, as if he was ready to go in and worship. Esav is born with a ruddy complexion, and his body is covered in a coat of hair. Rashi says the redness indicates a propensity for murder. The commentary of Rabbi Moise Tedeschi, the Hoil Moshe, speculates that the word Esav means prehistoric man, which indicates that those around baby Esav thought his hairy, red appearance made him look like a small caveman. Other negative comments in the Midrash interpret Esav’s name as a reference to animal food (esev) and futility (shav). Esav appears flawed from birth.
This description of Esav is extremely problematic. How can a person be born bad? Free will is a fundamental Jewish belief; Maimonides calls it “the very pillar of the Torah and the commandments.” In his Letter on Astrology, Maimonides argues that if man had no free will, the commandments would be pointless; people would end up doing whatever they were predestined to do anyway, with or without commands. Free will seems to be a given in Judaism, and like Maimonides, many Jewish thinkers are free will absolutists, believing that everything is a matter of choice.
From this vantage point, every child has exceptional opportunity. As Maimonides puts it, “Every man is capable of being as righteous as Moshe our teacher or as wicked as Yeravam.” Remarkable turnarounds are always possible. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the Netziv, would tell a story about himself that emphasizes how easily potential can be overlooked. He said that when he was a child in school, he was lazy and didn’t pay attention. When he was eleven, he overheard his father saying to his mother that he'd spoken to young Naftali Tzvi’s rebbe, and together they concluded he would never become a Torah scholar; because of this, his father arranged for him to apprentice with the local shoemaker after his Bar Mitzvah. Young Naftali Tzvi ran to his father and begged for another chance, and overnight, he became an excellent student.
As a young child, the Netziv turned his life around. When we read our parsha, we must consider the very same question about Esav: Could he have transformed himself? Is changing behavior just about cracking down and strengthening one’s will? Free will is not quite that simple. Many Jewish thinkers take a different view than Maimonides; some, like Rav Zadok Hakohen of Lublin, fully accept determinism, the view that there is no free will. Rav Zadok is concerned that free will contradicts God’s omnipotence; and while he is an outlier in Jewish thought, his deterministic point of view would not be out of place in contemporary philosophy. Advances in neuroscience and genetics have led many to argue that the brain, and the choices it makes, are subject to the laws of nature instead of the person’s own will. And undoubtedly there is so much of life that isn't under our control; the Mishnah reminds us that “against your will were you born… and against your will you will die.” We know that much of what occurs in our lives is predetermined.
Many Jewish texts grapple with the fine line between free will and determinism. The Talmud tells about an inventive response to determinism from the mother of a prominent rabbi. It says that “an astrologer told Rav Naḥman bar Yitzhak’s mother: Your son will be a thief. (In response), she never allowed him to uncover his head. She said to her son: “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and pray for Divine mercy.” He did not know why she said this to him. One day he was sitting and studying beneath a palm tree that did not belong to him, and the cloak fell off of his head. He lifted his eyes and saw the palm tree. He was so overcome by impulse that he climbed up and detached a bunch of dates with his teeth.” This passage, which serves as one of the halakhic sources for wearing a kippah, is a powerful response to the questions of determinism. Perhaps Rav Nachman’s future was foretold; but his mother found a way to outwit his fate. Your will may be too weak to overcome your horoscope; but then again there are always creative responses to evade a direct collision with fate.
Even with creativity and determination, there remain times when we are simply unable to change, when free will falls short. Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains that free will is not universal. Some of our good habits are so deeply ingrained that we cannot imagine acting otherwise; and there are bad habits that we don’t even perceive as bad, that we are unable to change. But on the battlefield between what in our lives is predetermined for good and for bad sits one point where the battle takes place; this spot is the “point of free will.” It is at that spot where the battle for change occurs.
Rav Dessler's idea of “the point of free will” is profound and nuanced. It affirms the centrality of free will, and the importance of personal initiative and responsibility; yet it also offers greater understanding of those who are morally unlucky, whose bad behavior may be a product of their genetics and upbringing.
This idea is particularly significant in the realm of education. A particular student's temperament is critical to how they are educated; the challenge is to find that point where the student can choose to learn and grow. To treat the classroom as an assembly line is a mistake and will only frustrate the students whose capabilities differ from others.
Esav may have been a victim of this misunderstanding. Perhaps his parents misjudged his temperament, and assumed that he could readily overcome inborn defects and deficits. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in an essay that “had Isaac and Rebecca studied Esav's nature and character early enough, and asked themselves, how can even an Esav, how can all the strength and energy, agility and courage that lies slumbering in this child be won over to be used in the service of God … then Jacob and Esav, with their totally different natures could still have remained twin brothers in spirit and life; quite early in life Esav's "sword" and Jacob's "spirit" could have worked hand in hand…”
Rabbi Hirsch is arguing for us to understand Esav, to educate him for who he is. We certainly need to be concerned that maybe he consigns Esav to vocational school too quickly; and of course, when a teacher assumes a student cannot learn, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But those possible mistakes should not prevent us from grappling with the challenge with which Esav confronts us. There are many people with inborn shortcomings; how do we help them find the right point where they can grow and flourish? How do we find a meaningful place for them in our schools and communities? These people carry the burden of struggles far larger than anyone can imagine. May God grant us the wisdom and creativity to help them find their way.