Toldot 5781: Two Jews, Three Opinions
Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )
GOOD MORNING! As Americans watch the 2020 presidential election slowly fade and disappear in the rearview mirror, all have to deal with the fact that polarization is probably the defining legacy of American politics in 2020.
Dr. Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association (APA), explains; “In recent years, Americans have started to fuse their identity with their political affiliation, which was not seen in 2016. We curate our social media for the things we like – as a result, we are only being exposed to information we want to see.”
In 1960, only 4% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans said they would be disappointed if their child married someone from the opposite political party, but by 2018, 45% of Democrats and 35% of Republicans said so, according to the APA.
As Jews, we are no strangers to disagreement. I remember once overhearing a high school senior advising his younger brother who was entering his freshman Talmud class, “If you find yourself drifting off or not paying attention in class and the teacher calls on you with a question, just answer that it’s a machloket (a matter of dispute) – you will almost always be right.”
Still, Judaism’s view of disagreements is very enlightening and can certainly give us direction in coping with the polarization brought on by arguments as well as present us with tools to begin to diffuse it.
In the classic work on Jewish values known as Pirkei Avot – “Ethics of our Fathers” – we find the following statement: “Any dispute that is for the sake of heaven shall endure; a dispute not for the sake heaven shall not endure. What is a dispute for the sake of heaven? The disputes of Hillel and Shammai” (Ethics of our Fathers 5:20).
The disputes between the school of Hillel (Beit Hillel) and the school of Shammai (Beit Shammai) were legendary – there are over three hundred recorded disagreements. Yet regarding these arguments the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) makes a remarkable statement; “Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The law is in accordance with our opinion; and these said: The law is in accordance with our opinion.
“A heavenly voice emerged and proclaimed: ‘Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the law is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.’” The Talmud then asks: ”Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have to have the law established in accordance with their opinion?”
The Talmud answers that the reason the law follows Beit Hillel is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted. In addition, when they taught a subject they would teach both their own
According to the Talmud the arguments of the schools of Hillel and Shammai never devolved into personal attacks. They actually got along and had a deep respect and fondness for one another. The ultimate proof to this is that the Talmud records they often married into each other’s families.
Thus, the key to an “honest” dispute is trying to see the issues from another perspective. Whether one agrees or not is not nearly as important as admitting there might be another viewpoint. It is often difficult to see things from another perspective but the crucial point is to try and accept the fact that there are other valid ways of looking at an issue.
Of course, this week’s Torah portion has a relevant lesson and contains a prime example of seeing things from another’s perspective. In this week’s Torah reading we find, “Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rifkah for a wife, the daughter of Besuel the Aramean from Padam Aram and sister to Lavan the Aramean” (Genesis 25:20).
The famous biblical commentator known as Rashi wonders why the Torah feels it necessary to reiterate that Rifkah was the daughter of Besuel the Aramean and the sister of Lavan the Aramean. After all, last week’s Torah reading (just a few sentences earlier) clearly identified Rifkah’s lineage and from where she came. Why does the Torah repeat it again?
Rashi answers that the Torah is teaching us that even though Rifkah grew up with a wicked father and brother, and came from a place of wicked people, she didn’t learn from their evil ways.
Still, this explanation requires further clarification. In last week’s parsha we already saw that Rifkah was a kind and generous person, as well as one of great modesty. Why is it necessary to once again highlight the difference between Rifkah and her wicked relatives from a wicked place?
In addition, it is odd that the Torah repeats by both her father Besuel and her brother Lavan that they were Aramean. Why is there a special emphasis on their Aramean nationality?
Jewish law is derived from the Talmud, the ancient compilation of discussions regarding all areas of Jewish Law. The Jewish people have two different versions of the Talmud: The Babylonian Talmud is written in Aramaic, the language of Aram, while the Jerusalem Talmud is written in Hebrew, the language spoken in the land of Israel.
Yet the Talmud that is written in a foreign language is the one that enjoys a much wider popularity; it is studied far more than the Jerusalem Talmud and even today comprises the bulk of the curriculum in Jewish schools of higher education all over the world. The Babylonian Talmud is also the foundation and source of all Jewish Law. Why is it that the Babylonian Talmud became more widely accepted than the Jerusalem Talmud, which is written in our native tongue?
The Aramean language is one of understanding another’s perspective. As an example, the word chessed in Hebrew means kindness, yet Rashi tells us (Leviticus 20:17) that in Aramaic it means shame. How can the same word mean both kindness and shame? It’s all a matter of perspective; the giver feels that he is doing a kindness, but the recipient feels shame at having to accept charity. The Arameans focus on the other individual’s perspective – hence in Aramaic chessed means shame.
The Babylonian Talmud is the most widely accepted authority for this very reason. When we have an argument in law, we want each opinion to be sensitive to the other’s perspective before we decide on the proper approach. Only in understanding the other sides’ perspective can we properly distill our own perspective. This was precisely Beit Hillel’s approach as well, and the reason we almost always follow their view.
This ability to see something from another’s perspective is deeply rooted in the very essence of the Aramean culture. Unfortunately, like every great talent, this incredible ability can be used for good or for evil. Both Rifkah’s father and brother used this ability to become confidence men (“con men”). A con man enters the reality of the “mark” and knows exactly how to manipulate him to gain “confidence” and get his desired end result. This comes from an uncanny ability to see the world from another’s perspective.
The reason that Rifkah’s lineage is repeated in this week’s parsha is because it becomes very relevant to the story line. The Torah is teaching us that Rifkah too had this ability. After all, it was her idea that her son Yaakov enter into Yitzchak’s reality and, through a subtle subterfuge, receive the blessings that were intended for her wicked son Eisav. Thus Rifkah, being from Aram, had the innate ability of insight into another’s perspective, but she used it to make sure that her righteous son prevailed over her wicked son.
When we try to see issues from another’s perspective we end up validating them as people. Validating them does not itself mean agreeing with them, approving of them, or waiving your own rights. You can still take appropriate actions to protect or support yourself or others. You are merely accepting the reality of the other person. You may not like it, you may not prefer it, you may feel sad or angry about it, but at a deeper level, you are at peace with it.
That alone is a blessing, and usually your shift to acceptance of that reality can help resolve conflict and polarization. After all, God created every one of us differently – as the sages in the Midrash point out; “Just like their faces are different so too are their viewpoints.” God didn’t create a world with a monolithic society. The differences in opinions gives us a collective strength. God created a world in which we can come to appreciate our differences and still work together in building a better world.
Toldot, Genesis 25:19 - 28:9
Rivka (Rebecca) gives birth to Eisav (Esau) and Yaakov (Jacob). Eisav sells the birthright to Yaakov for a bowl of lentil soup. Yitzchak (Isaac) sojourns in Gerar with Avimelech (Avimelech), king of the Philistines. Eisav marries two Hittite women bringing great pain to his parents (because they weren't of the fold).
Yaakov impersonates Eisav on the counsel of his mother in order to receive the blessing for the oldest son from his blind father, Yitzchak. Eisav, angry because of his brother's deception caused him to lose the firstborn blessings, plans to kill Yaakov, so Yaakov flees to his uncle Lavan (Laban) in Padan Aram – on the advice of his parents. They also advise him to marry Lavan's daughter.
Eisav understands that his Canaanite wives are displeasing to his parents, so he marries a third wife, Machlath, the daughter of Ishmael.
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Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves
— Carl Jung