A Message for My Son … and Us All

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My dearest Sefi, 

Our tradition tells us that upon the sun going down this Wednesday night, you are now a man. So I find it fitting to pass along some fatherly wisdom, and although you’ll hear some more this Shabbat and at your party on Sunday, nothing beats having it in print. (See, there are perks to your father being an editor!)

By Divine Providence, your Bar Mitzvah portion contains the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, receiving his new name of Israel and coming face-to-face with his estranged brother, Esau. Now, I could lecture you about the merits of brotherly love and the dangers of sibling rivalry, but you probably hear enough about that on a daily basis, especially when you and your brothers are chasing each other around the yard.

I want instead to address the ideas of values and convictions, and how to express them in a challenging world.

You’ve heard me say time and time again that disagreements are a part of life; indeed, in the realm of politics and policy they’re downright necessary if you don’t want to live in a dictatorship. But you’ve also heard me say that divisiveness is not a virtue, that dehumanizing your opponent demonizes yourself.

Which brings us to Jacob and Esau. The commentaries identify the angel with whom Jacob struggled as the minister of Esau. If you view the twins as essentially mirror images of each other — in the womb, one was attracted to idolatry, the other to Godliness, while as adults, one hunted and the other was a homebody, although both of them sought in his own way to honor his parents — and if you associate Jacob with the good inclination, then Esau would by default be associated with the evil inclination.

That’s fitting for a man whom the commentaries tell us was a murderer. So if Esau is the evil inclination, that would make his minister Satan, the accuser referenced sparingly in the Tanach. It just so happens that the gematria of Israel, 541, is the sum of Jacob, 182, and Satan, 359. Meaning that Jacob could not become Israel, a name associated with a higher level of spirituality, until he wrestled his evil inclination.

It’s important to remember that Israel didn’t eradicate his evil inclination; he merely overcame it. As the lofty manifestation of the Jewish ideal, Israel represents our values and convictions — our pursuit of life and of justice. As polar opposites, however, Jacob and Esau are like political parties, struggling against each other in the pursuit of a higher purpose maybe they themselves don’t fully comprehend.

At the level of Jacob and Esau, right and wrong is not so clear cut. Recall that in order to secure the blessings of his father, a hesitant Jacob had to deceive his father by dressing and acting like Esau. When you were a boy, it was very hard for you to square your heightened sense of justice with what you perceived to be routine unfairness. But as a man, facing the rough-and-tumble field that is life — from politics to economics to whether or not to go for it on fourth down and 2 — what I want for you is to appreciate the shades of gray and the colors that make the world around us.

It is quite possible — sometimes even necessary — to sacrifice planks of a doctrinal platform in order to achieve a hoped-for greater good. Free speech is a must, for example, but not all speech might or should be protected. An American must always be able to express his religion in public, but theocracies without prophets are dangerous — and neither you nor I, nor anyone else for that matter, is a prophet.

Do not confuse your votes with your values, your party and policy preferences with your convictions. The one may change; the other never should.

Above all, value the struggle, as it was through Jacob’s spiritual wrestling match that he was able to merit such a lofty name as Israel. Instead of dwelling in the black and white, appreciate the colorful tapestry that is the human condition, much like the coat of many colors that Israel bequeathed to another famous Sefi.

Mazel tov!