As we read the first stories about the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau in this week’s parsha, we are confronted with the important question about Isaac’s seeming favortism towards Esau. Why would Isaac love and choose his son who is related to by the Tradition as a shady character at best, and at times the Tradition depicts Esau as downright evil. How could Isaac not “see” who his son really was? How could he favor this man?
The midrash gives an interesting answer, which, at first glance, could seem to be a bit condescending. The Midrash Ha-gadol, in an exploration of Bereishit 25:28, remarks that Isaac’s preference shown to Esau was merely on an external level in order to draw him close and bring him near. In other words, Isaac was practicing positive parenting with the intention that by behaving with love and affection it would inspire his son to change his inappropriate ways to behavior more befitting him. Rather than chastise, berate and even punish, Isaac made a conscious decision that that would push his son farther away, and he chose to relate to him positively while not internally accepting his deviant behavior.
As a general approach, there is much to be said for this. The power of love and approval is very strong and can enable a child to stay close to his parents or teachers, even if the majority of the behavior is inappropriate. No matter how far the child falls, he or she knows that there is always a home base to return to.
But when looking more carefully, there is something about relating to another in such a way that could be seen as condescending and self-righteous. Perhaps the behavior was not black-and-white in the moral assessment? This approacah leaves no space for actually considering the other or paying attention to the other’s needs or concerns. It assumes that the other is ‘wrong’ and the only way to become ‘right’ is to abondon such behavior and come close to the parent/teacher.
Friends, some are still reeling from the recent elections, and others have begun the long and arduous path of deep self-reflection leading towards engaging with those with whom we disagree in meaningful and constructive ways. The Midrash does not offer any insight about how to learn from the other and how to grow together, rather it is ‘nice’ approach when we know that we are right and must merely wait for the other to ‘come around’, ‘see the light’ or wake up to what is obviously correct.
How willing are we to deeply engage with others that see things differently from how we do? Do we merely smile condescendingly at their ideas and behaviors with an air of self-righteousness knowing that they will eventually change their mind if I am pleasant and loving towards them? Or can I go past this approach–maintining the pleasantness and loving of course!– to a place of actually hearing who this other person is and what is driving their behaviors?
I want to bless us all to act in a bigger way than what the Midrash HaGadol is suggesting here. We should most certainly act with love and kindness towards all, especially with those with whom we disagree. But the intention should not be to necessarily change them, but rather to create an enivronment in which we can really connect with each other and grow to a deeper understanding. We do not need to agree, or have them necessarily abondon their path, but we cannot let them go, and that is the starting point of this midrash.