Shivim Panim Latorah: Understanding our Humanity

Remember that time when you were planning that really important thing, and then all of a sudden you couldn’t remember what you were trying to do? You lost all motivation and all you wanted to do was sleep?  Or eat?

What happened to your strong resolve? What happened to your commitment?

Every so often, for many of us, the body beats the mind. We get so tired, so hungry, so “done,” that we become blinded by our physical need, and our best laid plans fall away.  It’s what cravings specialists refer to as getting to “HALT:” Hungry Angry Lonely or Tired.

Ask anyone who knows me well;  when I’m in HALT, I can (every once in a while) be (a bit of) a drama queen.  I will admit that on occasion I have said things I don’t mean: “I’m so hungry I could DIE.”  And if you asked me to give away the most important thing in my life at a moment when I feel like I need to sleep, I might actually be willing to negotiate a price.

So it’s hard for me not to empathize with Esav in this week’s parsha.  He arrives at the end of a long day of hunting, and his quiet brother Jacob is making a lentil soup. Sell me some of that soup, he says, ki ayef anochi,  “because I am tired.”  Jacob agrees, on the condition that Esav sell his birthright, and Esav agrees.  Hineh anochi holeich lamut, v’lamah zeh li bechorah?  “I’m about to die. Why do I need the birthright?” (Genesis 25:30-32)  The rabbinic tradition wants to vilify him, to make him a thoughtless jerk who doesn’t know the value of important things in his life. And they point to his animalistic nature, in the way that he asks for the soup, the way that he eats it. But what if Esav is not an animal at all, but just deeply, utterly human? What if he has just hit the end of his rope at the end of a long day? Perhaps the Torah is encouraging us to hear the humanity in Esav, to understand that he is simply a victim of his cravings, of his exhaustion, and of his humanness. Evidently the Torah understood the concept of HALT. The Torah understood that human beings do stupid things when their defenses are down.

Even more, one interpretation suggests that Esav had probably learned this kind of language from his own mother.  As Robert Alter suggests, Esav’s words v’lamah zeh li bechorah (“why do I need the birthright?”) call to mind Rebecca’s words when she was struggling to have a child:  lamah zeh ‘anochi (“why me?”).  (See Robert Alter’s Genesis, p. 129.)  This beautiful connection pushes the point that Esav may have had a model in his own home of this kind of self-pity, this kind of giving up. He may not know any other way to be.  Shouldn’t we have a bit more compassion for him?

The rabbis teach that there are shivim panim latorah, literally, 70 faces of Torah. Our trick as careful readers of text, then, is to find ourselves in each of the figures of our story. We have a responsibility to look at each Biblical character from shivim panim, through 70 faces, and to see each one as utterly human.

Remember that time when you lost all your focus and gave up for a moment?  When you did the dumbest thing ever, just because you were tired or hungry, or you didn’t know a different way?  Most of us can remember at least one of those moments. And we must hold them in our minds when we meet Esav, or for that matter, anyone whose actions we may not understand. There are at least 70 faces to Torah. Look in the mirror; one of them is yours.

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