As we stroll down the sidewalks of life, we are confronted with a world which is nearly incomprehensible in its complexity. Life burgeons in every corner, in near enough infinite permutations, and we are but a barely perceptible portion of the enormity of nature.
Diversity in nature is ubiquitous – that fact is part of what has made life possible. The trial and error of evolution has brought us to where we are today, and will take us further yet in our human development.
It is curious, therefore, that as Humans, we attempt to shut out and delegitimise those who are not ‘like us’. It’s quite incredible actually – Humans can divide themselves across any lines, even imaginary! In a famous psychological study in the early 1970’s by Henry Tajfel, it was reliably demonstrated that people will show prejudice based on as arbitrary an idea as whether or not they think someone likes a particular painting!
This problem is one which has plagued us throughout our brief history in this world. Slaves versus free; Blacks versus Whites; educated versus uneducated; Northern versus Southern; the list continues.
It is this very problem which we have been fighting in Judaism, nearly since we arose as a people. In fact, Ḥazal tell us that this very issue is that which caused the second temple to be destroyed. Historically, they’re not far off – it was the infighting between the Hasmonean kings which led to the fall of Jerusalem and the eventual destruction of the Lord’s house.
Judaism has never been afraid of a good fight, but it has also never been afraid to push boundaries. A quick glance into the Talmud will reveal dissension on every page, deep in-depth discussions, sometimes even coming to blows! Ultimately, however, each party is welcomed back into the fold (bar one or two exceptions) and the discussion continues. There is very little talk of excluding someone from the Beit Midrash, and there are fewer examples of this actually occurring.
This week’s parasha is a perfect example of the plurality that exists within traditional Jewish sources. The verse says that Jacob “reached [lit. hit] the place and slept there”. Which place? The Sforno (late 15th century) comments that the place was simply an inn, common to all towns. Rashi (late 10th century), on the other hand, says that this place was actually Har HaBayit, the temple mount. The Radak (late 12th century) mentions that this was just an inn that he happened upon on his travels, about a day away from Be’er Sheva.
The plurality of opinions is refreshing, and serves to stoke lively conversation around the events of the verse. It is always healthy to have those who disagree with one’s viewpoint, as our Sages so wisely tell us, “Just as a knife is only sharpened with another knife and not by itself, so too is a wise one improved only through his study partner” (Yalkut Shimoni, VaYetzei, 319).
Too often in our world of extremes, we can sink into our own opinions, forgetting that each and every single human being is unique, and that this is an amazing part of being Human. Our different minds will bring us to the Torah from different directions; each of these can help to develop our own thoughts, sharpening them along the way. For those who are afraid of false ideas, we can compare the matter to evolution – only the most robust and true survive and are ultimately viable. Rather than looking at others’ ideas and criticising, let’s look at our own ideas and see how we can incorporate their good points, and positively develop our own ideas in the process.