December 17, 2016—17 Kislev 5777
This past fall two things have happened, and I am working on figuring out the connection between them.
The first is that, within the last two months, Shira and I have both lost our mothers. My mother, Rosyne Gardenswartz, may she rest in peace, died on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Shira’s mother, Rae Goodman, may she rest in peace, died on the second day of Kislev. We sat shiva in Denver and then in Newton for my Mom. We sat shiva in Jerusalem and then in Newton for Shira’s Mom. One thing that has happened is profound loss. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that I can never call my Mom again. Every day I feel that familiar pang. I want to call my Mom. And every day I realize, no, I cannot call her.
The second thing that happened, in between the loss of our two mothers, was our presidential election, which has resulted in an after-impact unlike any other in my lifetime. The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States has unleashed two powerful currents within our community which are in deep creative tension with one another.
One current flows from a deep-seated anxiety, a deeply held fear, of many of our members who worry about the very future of our republic. Does this election portend that an authoritarian figure, a strong man, will abridge basic Constitutional rights of American citizens, will set citizens against one another, will nod and wink to hatred? This group exhorts the synagogue to stand up, to speak truth to power, to get on the bus, to rally, to march, to fight.
But there is a counter current, also members of our shul, also people who love our shul and love our country, and they are dismayed by synagogue activism. You have destroyed my sanctuary, they say. Politics is divisive. Political activism, even in the name of Jewish values, they argue, is inevitably not about heavenly ideals that we can all get behind, but very much about party and partisanship, which injects toxic negative energy, which makes them feel like strangers in their own shul. Get back to prayer, to Torah study, to mitzvah. Enough with the politics.
Every day, literally every day, I meet with members of both camps. Members who say we need to do more synagogue activism so that we are relevant to an urgent moment. Members who say we need to not do any synagogue activism so that they can reclaim their peaceful sanctuary.
As all of this has played out, I keep wondering, what is the relationship between these two painful themes of the fall of 2016? What is the relationship between personal loss and all of this complexity among people who love our shul and love our nation but see reality so differently, and want different things from their shul?
There is a profound connection. It has to do with relationships.
My season of loss has only reinforced that sacred relationships are at the heart of any life that matters. Both of our mothers had lives that mattered not because of money, position, fame. Neither had money, position, fame. Both of their lives mattered infinitely because they loved deeply, and they were deeply loved, love they earned. The only antidote to our fragility and our vulnerability is love.
But aye there’s the rub. The loving and supportive relationships we need are harder than ever to come by because labels all too often get in the way. Progressive vs. conservative gets in the way. Democrat vs. Republican gets in the way. Hillary vs. Trump gets in the way. Blue state vs. red state gets in the way. JStreet vs. AIPAC gets in the way. In Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild writes:
In 1960, when a survey asked American adults whether it would “disturb” them if their child married a member of the other political party, no more than 5 percent of either party answered “yes.” But in 2010, 33 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans answered “yes.” In fact, partyism, as some call it, now beats race as the source of divisive prejudice…
According to a 2014 Pew study of over 10,000 Americans, the most politically engaged on each side see those in the “other party” not just as wrong, but as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” p. 6.
Loving relationships are more necessary than ever. We are so fragile. But loving relationships are more complicated than ever. We are so divided.
As it always does, our Torah reading this morning speaks to our reality. The relationship between Jacob and Esau is the story of how labels get in the way. How extraneous stuff gets in the way. Esau has a label: He is ish yodeah tzayid ish sadeh, a hunter, a man of the field, a guy with a gun. Jacob also has a label: He is ish tam oshev ohalim, a mild man, a bookish man who stayed indoors. Different groups. Different parties. Outdoors vs. indoors. What do different parties do? They fight. The brothers fight over paternal blessings, berakha, and over birthright, bekohra. And when there is fighting, and nasty gamesmanship, there are deep feelings of animus. Esau is so outraged by Jacob’s stealing of his blessing that he vows to kill his brother. Jacob is so frightened that he runs away from his brother for twenty years.
Our reading today picks the story up 20 years later. As Jacob and his family come home, he has one question on his mind: will my brother want to kill me? Initial reports are not encouraging. Esau is coming with 400 men. 400 men is an army. That doesn’t sound good. Jacob famously divides up his family, he prays, he worries out loud whether he and his loved ones are going to die, he wrestles with a mysterious assailant in the middle of the night, and now he is finally ready for the fateful reunion.
Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men… Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (Genesis 33:1,4)
At first blush, this seems like a happy end to a worrisome story. Esau hugs Jacob, kisses him, and they cry together. This is not brother killing brother. This is brother reconciling with brother.
But wait a minute. What about the past history of fighting and wrongs and labels? What happened to all that? Where did all the animus go?
If you read the story as I just did, the narrative is clear. The brothers make up. Where did the animus go? The brothers grew up. They realized their shared humanity was more important than their differences. Love is more important than a label.
That is all very beautiful. There is only one problem. If you look at the word vayishakeihu, and Esau kissed Jacob, there are diamonds over the word. The diamonds seem to be a kind of asterisk. The kiss has a qualification. Rashi explains that our sages disagreed over the nature of Esau’s kiss. Some believed it to be a genuine kiss of reconciliation. But others argued that the asterisk over the kiss suggests that it was not a genuine kiss, and that Esau can never stop hating Jacob. Yes, they had a nice moment. Esau did not kill Jacob. That is true. But don’t think that the brothers could ever really get along. Don’t think that Esau and Jacob could ever really love one another. Don’t think that their common humanity was more important than what divided them. Labels matter. Esau is a hunter, Jacob is a tent dweller, never the twain shall meet.
Sadly, I have to admit that the skeptical view is well taken. Esau does genuinely offer to escort Jacob, but Jacob begs off, one heads north, the other heads south, and after this moment of reunion, they never see one another again.
In other words, like the best narratives, the Jacob Esau story ends with a perfect
ambiguity, and the reader gets to choose. We know Esau does not kill Jacob, but kisses him. But whether that kiss is merely polite, or a statement of a new relationship, is not clear. Does love get the last word? Does label get the last word? The asterisk on the kiss means you get to decide.
I’ll tell you how I read it. I read the story through the prism of my mother in love’s last night, at Sharei Tzedek hospital in Jerusalem. What happened to my mother in love is a quiet story that happens all the time, every day, but it gets no press. My mother in love was treated on her last night by a medical team consisting of one secular Jewish Israeli doctor, one Arab Israeli doctor, and three Orthodox Israeli nurses. They worked together seamlessly and compassionately throughout the night to save my mother in love’s life. My mother in love shared the hospital room with an Arab woman, with a slight curtain between them. Each patient was surrounded by a big and loving family. My Jerusalem family, and Shira, were with my mother in love on that last night. Her Arab roommate had a very big family, and they were all there as well. When it became clear that my mother in love was soon to pass, my family recited the shema. When she passed, and my family was confronting the unimaginable, the Arab family approached our family. The words spoken were Arabic, which my family does not understand. But the meaning of their gesture and their presence was to offer love, support and consolation, the triumph of a humanity we all share. They pointed to heaven and said Allah, Allah. My family took this to mean that my mother in love was now with Allah, and that they offered the most poignant prayer they had: May Allah now be with you.
I choose to believe that love, humanity, and decency have the final word. Shabbat shalom.