I write to you on the eve of election day. I am filled with angst, fear, and anxiety. Yet, I am also filled with hope. This morning I was asked if I thought/believed that people are basically good. Without hesitation I said, “Yes, I believe that people are good.” Even as we are still reeling from the murder of 11 people, members of the Tree of Life Synagogue, I believe that people are essentially good.
My proof comes through in the hundreds of people who came to Temple Jeremiah for worship this past Friday night. We, along with hundreds of congregations across the country, participated in an effort called #ShowUpForShabbat. We invited friends and neighbors to be with us to remember this horrific act of anti-Semitism and support one another, committed to the idea that love is stronger than hate.
Fred Rogers, of blessed memory, recalls how his mother responded to the tragedies she witnessed in the world. When Fred asked her where God was in those terrible events, she would tell him, “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.” She guided him not to look only at the devastation, but to also look for those responding to the call for help.
The helpers always outnumber those bent on harming others. This remains true today. Look at all the people of all races, religions, and ethnicities who reached out to their Jewish brothers and sisters in the aftermath of this anti-Semitic attack. They number in the millions.
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we read about Isaac and Rebecca’s growing family. The beginning is quite rough. Rebecca feels tremendous pain from her pregnancy. She seeks answers from God who tells her that she carries twins representing two nations that will struggle with one another even as they are struggling within her. What is she to do with this information? Why does God tell her this? Is this predetermined leaving Rebecca without any choice?
Rebecca now has knowledge and now has a choice. She can accept things the way they are, or she can work to change the story. God gives her the opportunity to make better choices. Unfortunately, the parents choose sides. It is Isaac and Esau versus Rebecca and Jacob. Consequently, Jacob strives from the very beginning to dominate his older brother by any means necessary, while Esau, often painted as the bad guy, tries to make the best of his relationship with his younger brother.
When Jacob will only give him food in exchange for the birthright, Esau willingly gives it up rather than take the lentil stew by force. When Jacob tricks his father into giving the first-born blessing to him, Esau seeks another blessing, “Father, isn’t there another blessing for me?” Twenty years later Esau will again step forward and strive to make peace with his brother, seeking not revenge but love and relationship.
Esau refuses to give up on his brother and his family. Esau does not feel the story has been written and does what he can to short circuit the prophecy given to his mother before his birth. The goodness of Esau must be lifted up. I will not blindly accept the rabbinic commentary that paints him as the bad guy and Jacob as the good guy. To the contrary, Esau sees the good and responds with action while Jacob struggles to see the good in himself and in his brother. Esau prospers while Jacob battles with himself and later with his own family.
When we see the good in ourselves, we are better able to see the good in others. Battle is not a forgone conclusion. Even in the face of evil there is goodness and this goodness is what we must build upon. Our story is not written. We are writing it. Let us write of goodness, kindness and compassion.
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.