Tshuvah – from ignorant surety to brilliant doubt
by Jhos Singer
This week’s Torah portion is Toldot—it basically describes the fertility struggles of Isaac and Rebecca, the eventual birth of their twin boys, Jacob and Esau and their clumsy family life. In some ways this is a story replete with warnings about extremism. The central players embody polarity—from infertility to raising twins, twins who are polar opposites, and blatant parental favoritism (mom favors Jacob, dad favors Esau…and everyone knows it). These schisms aren’t subtle, and tensions arise.
Despite the obvious pitfalls, each character stubbornly clings to his or her position. When Isaac, old and blind, is tricked into blessing Jacob, who is disguised as Esau, the text hints that Isaac knows he is being fooled. Isaac says to Jacob-as-Esau, “Come near, I beg you, that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.” Clearly Isaac wants to believe that the son who has approached him is in fact his favorite, his Esau, despite strong evidence to the contrary. So, bullheaded and unquestioning, he blesses Jacob, thus setting off a chain of events that shatters his family.
Our tendency to believe our feelings are infallible can leave us upended when we discover we have been wrong—and that upending is a critically important experience in the spiritual seeker’s journey. It’s the moment when our convictions crack and crumble, when we open up and see with new eyes. And then we are thrust into tshuvah, the great turning of our consciousness from ignorant surety to brilliant doubt. It turns out that being wrong and doing right, making and owning our mistakes, is, ironically, inspiring.
I recently found myself being moved by an interview with Glenn Beck. When asked what message he would like to send to liberals in light of the election Beck said:
“Please be better than I was. Please learn from my mistakes… I think [Trump] could be one of the most dangerous presidents to ever come into the Oval Office. We have to watch him carefully, but also focus on each other and make this work….I know I wouldn’t believe me if I heard myself apologizing, so I’m telling you now: Don’t take my word for it. Watch my actions. I don’t care what you think about me. All I care about is saying: Please don’t make the mistake I made.” Crushing humility and heartbreaking regret from a man best known for his venomous and hateful hubris.
Isaac doesn’t say much after his messy blessing episode. We never really find out if he rued the day or was resigned. But his un-favored son, Jacob, found the courage to correct his mistakes. Sick of living with shame, he risked everything to make amends with his brother Esau. He grew beyond his missteps and selfishness to greatness. Everyone makes mistakes, but it takes nobility to admit it, and courage to fix it.