Parshat Toledot 5779: Interdependence and Healing

If anyone has ever been to the shuk (open marketplace) in Jerusalem, you know that yelling is a part of the ambiance. “Bannanot bannanot!” “Hallo Hallo!” and the like can be heard throughout the winding alleyways chock full of colors, smells, and people from all over the world. But, when I heard yelling in the shuk on Shabbat, when the shuk is closed for business, I was quite befuddled.

I had been invited to a free “games and beer” event on a shabbat afternoon not long after arriving to Jerusalem, and I was so excited to see Jerusalemites from all across the religious spectrum coming together and enjoying true oneg shabbat. As I was walking up the hill to the shuk, I heard the shouting. But, it wasn’t the “Bannanot bannanot!” that I was used to. In my naivete I thought, “Oh! When they said games they must have also meant some sort of competitive games. People are cheering!” As I approached the event, I saw that it was overflowing with Hasidim. “Wow! Even the hasidim came out to play! How cool!” I thought. It wasn’t until I was smushed in the center of the crowd that I understood what was happening. To my left were secular Jews, conservative Jews, reform Jews, unaffiliated Jews, and even orthodox (non-Hasidic) Jews, sipping their beer with amusement and confusion as some stared at the hasidim, laughing and mocking them, and others tried to ignore them. To my right were the Hasidim, in their beautiful golden shabbos robes and fur shtreimels, yelling with all their heart and might, “SHABBOS! SHABBOS!”

Never have I seen with my own eyes, or heard with my own ears, a more drastic divide among Jews.

The truth is, there have been many divides like this in our tradition, starting all the way back with Jacob and Esau as we see in this week’s parsha. Their struggle began even before they entered the world, as we read  “The children struggled in her [Rivka’s] womb.” Once in the world, the tension between Jacob (dweller in tents) and Esau (man of the field) is constantly apparent. Their relationship quickly devolves into trickery and lies, and the trust between them (if there was any to start) becomes nonexistent. Esau gets tricked away from his blessing from Isaac, and he cries a bitter cry. A cry that some say lasted way beyond the moment of deception, but resonated throughout history and perhaps even continues to this very day.

What is it about Esau that made Jacob, Rivka, and later the rabbis so uncomfortable? From the basic meaning of the text, he seems like a good guy, loyal and loving of his father. Perhaps it was his appearance, red and firey, or his taste for meat and hunting. Perhaps in an effort to resolve the cognitive dissonance of our forefather Jacob treating someone so poorly, the rabbis depict Esau as an evil person, deserving of punishment. My personal take: Esau was a good guy that was gravely misunderstood.

Whether we believe that Esau was a good but misunderstood guy, or actually evil, we see some real family dysfunction in this parsha. We might be familiar with this in our own families or communities. In many cases, people have wronged us and do deserve to be out of our lives. In other cases, we push people away because they are hard to deal with, or don’t fit into our lives, or we don’t want to put in the effort to understand them.

In our larger Jewish family, we fall into this familial dysfunction regularly. Perhaps you’ve had the thought, “everyone less religious than me isn’t doing it right, and everyone more religious than me is crazy!” We push each other out for being not religious enough/too religious/not sharing our political beliefs.

In the wake of antisemitism and white supremacy, we need each other more than ever.

Back in the Shuk, most of the Hasidim had left. It turned out that they thought the shuk had been open for business on Shabbat, and that we were desecrating Shabbat in their neighborhood. Once the misunderstanding was cleared, they went home. A group of us gathered to sing Yedid Nefesh, as the sun was already beginning to set and Shabbat was coming to an end. Mid-verse, I looked up and saw that there was one Hasid left. He was facing the wall, his hands over his ears, continuing to quietly yell “Shabbos” to himself. Though it was directed towards me and my community, it somehow touched me deeply, and pierced through my (rightful) anger. The message was simple: he loved shabbos. He wanted other people to love it too. In that way, we are connected.

Two weeks ago, our community suffered a devastating loss at the hands of white supremacy and anti-semitism. And, we need each other.

At the end of the vigil the Sunday after the attack in Pittsburgh, it was announced that the programming was over, and we could go home. A friend and I started walking back towards the T station with our heads sunk, having heard many inspiring words that opened our hearts that day, and ready to spend the rest of the day in solemn mourning. Behind us, I heard a song. Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael (I’ll sing this), I turned around and saw about ten people--a minyan-- with their arms around each other in a circle singing the words that mean “our siblings, the whole house of Israel.” My friend and I walked over, as if pulled by a magnetic force. Standing to the side, I witnessed with pure awe as the circle grew in seconds from 10, to 20, to 50, to hundreds of people, arms connected one to the other, singing together as if one voice Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael...

May we remember our connection to--and our dependence on--one another, as we fight for our collective liberation. Shabbat Shalom.