Conflict resolution: Importance of understanding the other side

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

Antagonism is growing in our society politically and socially. In recent times one political party in our government adopted as policy and practice, automatically to oppose whatever the opposite party proposed, irrespective of merit. One could respond: “So, what else is new? Has it not always been so?”

We cite a Torah text (Genesis 25:19-28:9): it is the story of two ancient combatants, Jacob and Esau, fraternal twins, ancestors of the people Israel and of the people of Edom, both born from the matriarch Rebecca, who reports that even when she was pregnant with them, these fraternal twins were already battling in the womb.

Thus begins many years of conflict between Jacob and Esau/Edom. They fight over the birthright and the paternal blessing. Mutual hostility, fighting and protracted fear follow. Ultimately though, forbearance and forgiveness ensue.

Scholars tell us that the biblical story reflects a long history of enmity and sometimes violent conflict between the people of Israel/Judea and its neighboring people to the south, Edom. Remember that much later Edom, the descendants of Esau, refuse passage to the people of Israel when they were on their way from Egypt to Canaan (Numbers 20, 14-21; Judges 11:17). Then there is the record of King David’s conquest and subjugation of Edom (II Samuel 8.14). Note also the revolt of Edom against the Kingdom of Israel and its subsequent independence (II Kings 8-22). The book of Amos speaks of the underlying hostility and attack by Edom against Israel: “he pursued his brother with the sword casting off all pity (Amos 1.11-12).” During the conquest of Judea by Babylonia (586 BCE), we are told that the Kingdom of Edom rejoiced at the disaster that befell Israel, a fact that Israel apparently did not forget or forgive. (Psalms 137.7, Obadiah 10-11).

Thus in the story of conflict between Israel and Edom, the Torah provides a paradigm of conflict and what is required for its resolution. Yes, even in the midst of mutual acts of destruction we are given a guideline to the possibility of an ultimate move toward amity.

What is that guideline?

First, despite that history of continued conflict between Israel and Edom, Scripture reminds us that right was not entirely on one side of the conflict and wrong on the other. That is the attitude at which competing “Sides” will eventually have to arrive. In the midst of conflict, opposing sides always turn to their long list of past hurts, grievances and wrongs that each other have suffered. Each side falls into a state of intense justification of its own fears and reasons for retaliation. Now, for example, in the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, each side defends itself in the field of public opinion as if on the field of battle itself. Grievances and aspirations of “the other side” are utterly forgotten the “other” is demonized. Without discrimination we hear from either “side” we hear “Jews are this” or “Arabs are that”.

The Torah is more realistic as Sarah demands the Hagar and their son Ishmael be cruelly expelled, we are reminded that the condition of both Jacob and Esau and the wrongs that each has suffered.

Of course Jacob becomes “Israel” our great and revered ancestor. But the very beginning the text is forthright enough to tell us that it was through chicanery, falsehood, trickery that Jacob achieved both the blessing and birthright. However dimwitted Esau (Edom) whatever his unfitness for covenant leadership, still Torah makes clear that Jacob took advantage of Esau – with his mother Rebecca’s help! – in denying Esau his father Isaac’s blessing.

So the Torah invites us to consider whether the means Jacob used to gain his ends were morally justifiable. The answer has to be known to anyone who reads the full Torah text with an open mind. The Torah itself makes a judgment on Jacob by showing that as he deceives his own father, as he himself is later deceived by his father-in-law Laban (Genesis 29.25-26).

The biblical scholar Nachum Sarna in his book “Understanding Genesis”, notes that the Bible’s explicit disapproval of Jacob is remarkable as a moral standard, especially in the time of ancient days when the bible was conceived. At that ancient time many peoples would have thought, that what Jacob did was perfectly acceptable; how much the more so at a time like ours the Torah helps us to preserve not only our moral balance but also our own good judgment.

Many think that the conflict we now experience are only just yet another example of the historic saga of human conflict that will always continuous rage without end. Yet the overall intent of Torah, we should not forget, is to impose upon us the imperative of the determined hope to work toward intergroup amity.

Beyond our wish and ability to organize in behalf of our own “side” to win a propaganda war or even to put down by force of those who attack us, there is a greater need beyond. We must look toward that further goal. For example, the only security we can possibly hope for the State of Israel and its people will be efforts on both sides to share in work of mutual benefit. The only secure piece will be built on justice for both sides and this requires compromise. Present leaders with their imperfect wisdom and their immediate political “needs”, or even their personal gain will come and go. It is only reconcilable amity that will bring redemption for ordinary people.

Further, in the midst of conflict the Torah reminds us of the shared humanity of current combatants. Remember the inhuman repression of ancient Judea by the Empire of Rome. The code name that ancient Jews used to talk about Rome without getting into trouble with their Roman oppressors was “Edom” or “Esau.” That is what the ancient Judeans called their Roman oppressors. But even as we say this we recall that Edom or Esau were names of the brother of Jacob.

Yet year after year Jews still read that Jacob and Esau were brothers. Every year Jews hear that the divine commandment: “you shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother!” Every year Jews read after all, of the ultimate reconciliation of the brothers Jacob and Esau and of their embrace!!

This above all is a signal on which our Torah insists. These express the direction which we must chose and devise in our policies and our plans for a better future for everyone.

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is Senior Scholar of North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).

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