Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from our 2019 rabbi-in-residence, Rabbi Aaron Melman. Rabbi Melman has been a rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois, for over 17 years and its head rabbi since 2015. He is originally from Toronto where he graduated York University with a BA in Judaic Studies. He attended the Jewish Theological Seminary where he received his ordination in May, 2002.
The Right Way to Argue: Reflections on Parashat Tol’dot
by Rabbi Aaron Melman
I have always been intrigued by parashat Tol’dot. “But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body, one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.’ (Gen. 22-23). The theme of the older serving the younger is something we shall see throughout the rest of the book of Bereishit. But it is the story of the children struggling within Rebekah that begs us to ask more questions. Rebekah has been unable to conceive and Isaac pleas with God on her behalf. We don’t know exactly what he said although Rashi tells us that “he prayed intensely.”
So why did the twins struggle within Rebekah? Rashi tell us that this verse says, “Expound me,” meaning, the verse needs further explanation in order to understand what is happening. He further comments that the children yitrotzetuzu (struggled) in her womb. What is yitrotzetuzu, and what is Rebekah saying? Our Sages tell us that when Rebekah passed by houses of Torah study Jacob would rutz, run, struggling to get out. However when Rebekah would pass by the entrance to a place of idolatry, Esau would struggle to get out. Similarly, Ibn Ezra suggests that Rebekah inquired of other women as to whether they had experienced anything similar and they said, “no.” There is a more commonly understood explanation. They were struggling, ratzatz, with each other, and who would be their heir – in this world, and in the World to Come.
The idea of siblings, or any two people (or groups of people) struggling with one another takes me back to our summer theme this past season of eilu v’eilu. Jewish tradition sees disagreement not as a negative, but as healthy and even holy. In one famous story from the Talmud, two rival houses of scholars, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, disagree for three years on certain matters of halakhah, Jewish law. Finally, a Divine Voice calls from heaven, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – these and these are the words of the living God, and the halakhah is according to Beit Hillel”. Judaism values a plurality of opinions while also acknowledging the need for standards and rules by which the whole community abides. Both Beit Shammai’s and Beit Hillel’s rulings are divinely inspired, but the law is according to Beit Hillel. This story captures an inherent tension of life in the Jewish community – we need diversity and harmony, conflict and resolution.
President Ulysses S. Grant did not begin writing his memoirs until he was dying. In the final paragraphs, composed at a time of agonizing physical pain, Grant addresses the optimistic prediction that Southerner and Northerner would soon again be able to live together in peace and harmony. He wrote: “But the war between the States was a very bloody and a very costly war. One side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end. I commanded the whole of the mighty host engaged on the victorious side. I was, no matter whether deservedly so or not, a representative of that side of the controversy. It is a significant and gratifying fact that Confederates should have joined heartily in this spontaneous move. I hope the good feeling inaugurated may continue to the end.”
Imagine how difficult it must have been for the two sides in the American Civil War to be able to communicate civilly with each other. The conflicts had not disappeared. The wounds were still fresh. But something in the American spirit enabled the country to move forward and keep the country whole. I think about this as we celebrate Thanksgiving and as we read about the struggle of two twins, two nations growing within our matriarch Rebekah.
We must figure out a way to live with the tension of divergent opinions, to allow for differences of opinion without letting them tear the community apart. The great sages Hillel and Shammai are our models. Their disagreements are described as “disputes in the name of Heaven,” “machlokot l’shem shamayim,” that is, disputes for a good or holy cause. Hillel, Shammai and their disciples show us the right way to argue – in spite of their disagreements, they still eat in each other’s homes and marry each other’s sons and daughters, showing that they behave with “affection and camaraderie between them.”
In his inaugural address, on the eve of the Civil War Grant wrote about retrospectively, President Abraham Lincoln said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In our Torah portion, it is not clear that Jacob and Esau will ever reach a resolution to the struggle. Similarly, it is not clear that the divisions which complicate our own lives will be easily resolved. However, we must continue to struggle, committed both to our own ideals, and the belief that we can disagree with each other in the spirit of eilu v’eilu.