Monday, September 29, 2008

Teshuvah Pitfalls

Today’s reading features several examples of my least favorite aspect of aggadah. The rabbis have a tendency to vilify characters who, in the text of the Tanach itself, are nuanced and possibly sympathetic, like Esau or Ishmael. Due to later historical connections and allusions (e.g. Esau = Edom = Rome), the rabbis feel they have to demonize these characters in order to claim that the bad behavior of their putative descendants is due to their ancestor’s evil nature. This tendency was especially frustrating to me in reading the aggadot for today in light of the fact that I usually read the story of Jacob and Esau’s reunion as an inspiring story about forgiveness. Instead, many of the aggadot seem focused on demonstrating that Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation was flawed or insincere, with an eye especially to showing that Esau is intimidated or bullied into accepting the truce.

In aggadah #81, Esau is granted his own parallel version of Jacob’s dream. During the same night that Jacob has his dream, Esau’s forces are “wrestling” with bands of angels who inflict lasting damage and also, in a sense, rename Esau. While Jacob is granted a new name that indicates his destiny and role as a patriarch of the Jewish people, Esau’s new name diminishes his importance and demonstrates that he is only a significant person in relation to his brother. Jacob’s dream ennobles him and gives him the strength to finally confront his sin and become a new person, while Esau’s dream relegates him to second place, to an existence as the fall guy. In a sense, the author of the aggadah is dramatizing what the commentaries have done to Esau’s character. Could we conceive of an alternative dream aggadah here that addresses the fact that Esau, who could justifiably have remained bitter and angry at Jacob, instead runs to greet his estranged brother with kisses and happy tears? What message or new name could the angels have brought to Esau to assist him in wrestling with his own pain and doubts and preparing for the reconciliation?

A final note: Aggadah #77 is a fascinating warning about teshuvah and especially about the process that many of us are engaged in right now, that of making apologies to people we have wronged. The text compares revisiting those moments of conflict to a sleeping robber chieftain (I like the image of my yetzer hara-- evil inclination-- as being a bandit hanging out in my brain) who begins a new fight upon being awoken and suddenly reminded of a past confrontation. I have certainly had moments in my own life when an attempt to make amends has turned into a fraught rehashing of the original fight. Let’s take this midrash as a caution: we should monitor our own intentions and approach when exposing old injuries to the light. If we bring up the old disagreement by reminding our loved ones of the pain of the original incident instead of the new, better selves we hope to be, we risk sabotaging our own efforts at moving on.

This Rosh Hashanah, may we all be blessed with the strength to reconcile with our own Esaus (or Jacobs) and to experience the moment in which teshuvah helps us to see the face of God in the faces of our fellow human beings. Shanah tovah!


chillul Who? said...

I've often had similar discomforts with the midrashic authors' habit of piling on sins/merits in a way that makes biblical characters into caricatures.

With Esav, though, I think there's something deeper going on. I don't know what it is, but something must have inspired the following line from Ovadya: "Ve-alu moshi'im behar tsiyon lishpot et har esav, vehaita ladonai hamelucha" and from Tehilim "Zechor adonai livnei edom et yom yerushalayim, ha'omrim aru aru ad hayesod bah"....and the whole Yeshayah 63 thing referenced in Anim Zemirot's "lilvusho adom, purah bedarko bevo'o me'edom".

It's mysterious to me, but it seems like Esav and his people were set up as some kind of antithesis of the Israelites at an earlier, pre-rabinnic age. Damned if I know why, though. It's not like they were our biggest enemies or anything.

Paul Centolella said...

The commentaries don’t always reflect the complexity that can be found in the relationship between Jacob and Esau. During the 2008 Institute class on Playing with White Fire, the following story emerged:

“Sending ahead messengers, Jacob learned that his brother Esau was coming to meet him with a force of 400 men. Fearing his brother, Jacob sent him gifts. However, Jacob remained emotionally unprepared to meet him. After having his family, his servants, and all his possessions moved across the river Jabbok, Jacob found a quiet place.

He lay down beside the stream and cleared his mind of thoughts. Jacob slowed his breathing and descended into the space between his breathes. Soon it began to rain, but Jacob had entered a deep meditation and did not notice the rain falling on his face. It rained heavily. The river overflowed its banks. And, as the waters surrounded him, time and space disappeared. Jacob found himself back in Rebekah’s womb.

In the womb, Jacob and Esau had struggled. Now, when Jacob returned, the one with whom he had struggled was present for him again. And, the two wrestled through the night. In close, almost continuous contact, each wrestler placed one hold after another on his opponent, seeking a point of leverage. As they grappled with one another, their bodies spiraled through the liquid environment.

With dawn breaking in the eastern sky, the water began to recede. His opponent wrenched Jacob’s hip. Still Jacob held him in the water and would not let him go until he gave Jacob a blessing. The blessing given to Jacob was that: “…your name will be Israel for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

It is said that in the womb every child the is shown the entire Torah and given a name. This is not the name that will be given by their parents, but his or her true name. Then, just as the child is born, the Holy One touches its upper lip, creating this small indentation and causing the newborn to forget what was learned in the womb. Jacob’s blessing was to be reminded of his true name. When spoken, it brought into existence Israel’s divine purpose.

Later that morning, Israel set out to meet his brother. When Esau saw that it was not Jacob coming toward him, but Israel, Esau ran to meet him. He embraced him. And, they held one another.”