Standing at the Crossroads
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9) begins with another of our Jewish ancestors’ struggles with fertility. But finally, after pleading with God, Isaac and Rebecca do conceive—with twins.
“And the children crushed each other inside her; and she said, ‘If so, why is this happening to me?!’ and she went to investigate the matter with God. And God said to her; ‘Two nations are in your womb. And two peoples will come from your body will be divided; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder will serve the younger.’” Genesis 25:22-23
This passage marks the beginning of the lives of Jacob and Esau, Rebecca’s polar opposite twins. Much is made of their differences—Jacob is a stand-in for the mind/spirit, while Esau represents the heart/body. Jacob is clever and faithful; Esau is practical and emotional. The rabbinic tradition divides them further, casting Esau as a nefarious character, while seeing Jacob’s every action in the best possible light. But here, in this moment, before their birth, they are bound in struggle.
On Wednesday night, two speakers from the Parents Circle Families Forum spoke at Chochmat HaLev. The Parents Circle is an organization from Israel/Palestine that gives folks from different sides of the conflict—each of whom have been bereaved—a chance to do healing work, together. A Jew and a Palestinian are paired, they share their stories, act as witnesses to one another’s pain, and let the full weight of their humanity crash down around their trembling knees.
Last night, our speakers were a Jewish mother, Robi (originally from South Africa), whose son, a reluctant army reservist, was killed by sniper fire while patrolling a settlement checkpoint. The other was a Palestinian son, Mazer, whose father was out doing household errands and was shot by an Israeli soldier who was suspicious of the packages he carried. Their stories revealed to us two people, different in almost every way, but bound by a shared, devastating, life-altering loss. Both of them recounted standing in a crossroads of revenge or reconciliation, depression or determination, victimhood or vitality, fury or forgiveness.
Like Rebecca during her difficult pregnancy, Robi and Mazer faced and have learned to live with conflicting feelings and impulses roiling their bodies and souls. Would their pain overwhelm their humanity? Would their spiritual integrity be eroded or strengthened by the violence and animosity that pervaded their lives? Would they choose the path of half-dead numbness or would they accept the sharp, stinging path of a scarred life, fully lived? What will emerge if they forgive, if they embrace, if they carve a third way out of the crossroads?
Jacob and Esau’s story is fraught with callousness, greed, deceit, rage, and betrayal. Ultimately they are estranged and live worlds apart. But after 20 years of growth and transformation, they finally reconcile, with kisses and generosity.
I find it interesting that most of our sages do not accept their reconciliation, instead insisting that Jacob was the “good” one, and that Esau was pure evil. Of course we know this is a spiritually empty position. The horrible, exhausting fact is that human beings are wild and unpredictable, complicated creatures whose lives are constantly subject to change. On the one hand, this is beautiful—it means that things can change on a dime, that redemption is always possible. But on the other hand, it means we are constantly standing at the crossroads on the verge of making a bad decision, that we are flawed and susceptible to making bad choices. So why would the rabbis play the duality card in this story?
Perhaps because we need to feel that tension—the polar, divided, and crushing difference between who we are and whom we still need to become. Perhaps we are being warned that every birth and every death brings numerous hard choices; that the road is going to be long and bumpy; and that we are going to stretch and grow in ways we never could have imagined.
This Shabbat, may we be like Rebecca, and like Robi and Mazer. Let us choose full, messy, but amazing life. Let us lift up the souls of the dead through our actions and deeds, our faith, and our fierce insistence to bless and be blessed.