Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

How often do we build a case against someone who is playing the antagonist in our life story? What would change if we could approach that antagonist with more empathy?

This week we are introduced to two brothers very different from each other. Esau is the hairy, outdoorsy male, and Jacob the clean shaven, gentle, studious type. While the rabbis give us a lot of commentary judging Esau and proving him undeserving of the blessing that Jacob wins through deception, the Torah itself does not judge Esau and in fact gives voice to Esau’s sense of loss when he discovered that he has been deceived. The Midrash tells us that from the beginning that Jacob was a man of God and the Torah, Esau was course and a worshipper of idols. They do so in order to elevate Jacob and to diminish Esau, thus justifying Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac.

This year I am struck by the contrast between the rabbis’ demeaning description of Esau and the empathy the Torah narrative provides for Esau. I read Esau’s interaction with Isaac, and feel his disappointment, his loss when “V’yitzak tza’akah g’dolah”, “he cried out a big cry.” His words to his father after hearing that Jacob has received the blessing meant for him, “Have you not a blessing reserved for me?” touch my heart. The empathy in the narrative for Esau moves me. Esau will become an enemy of Jacob, Jacob will be the hero of our story. Yet, the Torah exposes Esau’s humanity to us and asks us to confront the consequence of Jacob’s actions.

How often do we build a case against someone who is playing the antagonist in our life story?

When someone is against us, or seems to favor an opponent, how often do we work to build our own case while diminishing the other person?

What would change in our lives if instead of proving ourselves right and the other person wrong, we accepted our own truth, but allowed empathy for that other person as well?

What might change in the way we treat each other if we could find a little more room in our own hearts to be touched by their “big cries?”

From the way the Torah tells this narrative, I learn that even when someone is our opposite, our opponent, our enemy, our foil, we need to see the humanity in that person and find empathy for him.

Maybe the Torah wants to remind us that though we may favor certain heroes in our own life stories, that we should always save some empathy for the people who challenge us and remember to see the humanity in their stories as well.

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