Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shades of Grey

We like it when things fall into clear categories: black and white, right and wrong. I either add someone to as a “friend” on Facebook or I don’t. There’s no in-between category for “sort-of-a-friend-but-not-really-and-I’d-like-to-say-hi-but-not-have to-stay-in-touch-forever.” Yes or no. Friend or not. In or out. Life’s easier that way – simpler too. We want everything to fit into categories we can deal with.


But life isn’t that way. Things aren’t as simple as they seem. We don’t fit into simple boxes. Each of us has qualities that make us different, special and unique – qualities we can’t label as “good” or “bad.” And what’s true for each of us also applies to every child – especially in the eyes of their parents. Even if that parent’s name is Rivkah, and her son’s name is Eisav.


We generally like to fit Ya’akov and Eisav into those same simple categories. Ya’akov - dweller of tents, learner of Torah, cooker of soup: Good Son. Eisav - hairy hunter, sells his birthright for a bowl of stew, marries Cana’ani women: Bad Son. And then everything fits. Ya’akov gets the brachah, Eisav loses out. Ya’akov becomes the father of the Jewish people, Eisav’s children hate us. It’s simple – or at least seems simple.


But what about the fact that Ya’akov loved Eisav? The Torah tells us that ויאהב יצחק את עשו כי ציד בפיו – “Yitzchak loved Eisav because he put food in his mouth.” (see Bereishit 25:28) Sure, Rashi says that Eisav “tricked” his father with silly questions, like “Do you have to take Ma’aser on salt?” But, at the very least Eisav shows a great deal of respect for his father. When Yitzchak tells him to hunt some food to make him a tasty meal, Eisav doesn’t walk. He runs to fulfill his father’s wishes. (When’s the last time any of us ran to do what our parents asked us to do?) Also, is Ya’akov really the angel that we always think he is? Sure, he doesn’t want to trick his father into giving him the brachah. But why not? Not because it’s wrong – but because he’s afraid that he’ll get caught. Why doesn’t he tell his mother that tricking your blind father is wrong? Would Eisav have stolen the brachah had the shoe been on the other foot?


Nechama Leibowitz makes an interesting point about a strange phrase at the end of the parshah. When Yitzchak and Rivkah send Ya’akov away to hide from Eisav, the Torah tells us that,וַיִּשְׁלַח יִצְחָק אֶת-יַעֲקֹב, וַיֵּלֶךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם--אֶל-לָבָן בֶּן-בְּתוּאֵל, הָאֲרַמִּי, אֲחִי רִבְקָה, אֵם יַעֲקֹב וְעֵשָׂו“And Yitzchak sent Ya’akov, and he went to Padan Aram, to Lavan the son of Betuel the Arami, the brother of Rivkah, the mother of Ya’akov and Eisav.” (28:5)Why does the Torah tell us that Rivkah is “the mother of Ya’akov and Eisav”? Don’t we already know that from the story? In fact, this is such a good question that Rashi actually says, אינני יודע מה מלמדנו – “I don’t know what this teaches us.” (Note that Rashi wasn’t afraid to admit that he didn’t know the answer to a question. Sure, he could have given us an answer. But he didn’t like any of the answers he thought of – and he’s honest enough to tell us so.)


Nechama answers this question by looking at what Rivkah tells Ya’akov when she first wants to send him into hiding: לָמָה אֶשְׁכַּל גַּם-שְׁנֵיכֶם, יוֹם אֶחָד – “why should I lose you both in one day?” Her question seems strange. If Eisav killed Ya’akov, she’d only lose one son that day. What does she mean by saying that she’d lose “both”? Nechama quotes the explanation of the Italian commentator Ben-Amozag, in his Eim Lamikra.


“Rivkah said: whichever of you kills the other, I will mourn for you both
on the same day. The murdered will be dead, and the one who kills will be hated
in my eyes like a stranger and an enemy, and it will be as if he is gone. So in
any case I will mourn for both of my sons.”

Nechama suggests that by calling Rivkah “the mother of Ya’akov and Eisav,” the Torah teaches us that Rivkah sent Ya’akov away not just to save Ya’akov from Eisav, but to save Eisav from killing Ya’akov. She understood his anger, and instead of allowing him to kill Ya’akov, she sent Ya’akov away to give Eisav time to calm down.Rivkah knew both of her sons. Just as she realized that Ya’akov needed the brachah from his father, she realized that the very same brachah would be disastrous for Eisav. He could never be the father of the Jewish people. He was special and unique and strong and had many amazing talents; but that brachah was just not for him. We should never think that Rivkah did not love Eisav as her son. Just because he wasn’t Ya’akov does not mean that his mother wasn’t looking out for his best interests, making sure that he got what he needed to grow and succeed in life.


Like Rivkah, every parent loves his or her children both for their strengths, and for their weaknesses. Children aren’t robots. They’re good at some things, and not so good at others. But that’s what makes them unique and individual; it’s what gives them their own original perspective on life, and their own insights to offer to others.


And, what’s true for parents must also be good for educators. Good teachers can see the qualities that make each individual child shine – even if she might not be the “best” student. And sometimes the very best students – the strongest, most studious – the ones who get the best grades – sometimes need to learn how to see beyond the books; how to apply knowledge or even just connect to others.

No, not everyone should be our Facebook friend. And how many of your “friends” do you really know that well? But every person does have something to add to your life and something to teach each of us.We can even learn from an Eisav. Just ask his mother.