As if the National Football League was not facing enough heat in the Trump-era culture wars, its Washington, D.C. team played a home game on Thanksgiving Day for the first time, prompting statements of disappointment from several Native American leaders and advocates.
The Washington, D.C. team’s name, playing on harmful and insulting ethnic stereotypes, is especially grating on Thanksgiving. For most Americans, Thanksgiving evokes the story of Pilgrims offering gratitude for surviving a harsh year and establishing a foothold in the New World; for Native Americans, though, it marks the beginning of a centuries-long story of suffering, disease, displacement, and oppression. Scheduling the Washington, D.C. team to host a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving Day itself highlighted the chasm between the day’s two divergent narratives.
Our Torah portion, like many of the stories in Genesis, contains a story about family strife. It is unique, however, in how the tension is not ultimately reconciled. Isaac and Ishmael join in mourning for Abraham, and there seems not to be lasting resentment. Jacob and Esau reconnect and peacefully go their separate ways without even bringing up the birthright and blessings that caused so much strife years before. Joseph and his brothers reunite in Egypt, with no apparent hard feelings.
But Jacob and his uncle and father-in-law, Laban, part ways amid a flurry of claims, counter-claims, and grievances left unresolved and raw. To Laban, Jacob treacherously sneaked away under the cover of night with his daughters, grandchildren, and a great deal of his accumulated wealth. In contrast, Jacob saw himself as target of Laban’s predations – first by marrying him to Leah in place of Rachel and then by repeated attempts to swindle him of his wages.
In their final confrontation, neither concedes an inch to the other’s version of events. This is borne out by the two names they successively assign to the pillar they established to mark their separation. Jacob, speaking his native Hebrew, calls it Gal-Ed, literally, a monument of witness. Laban, speaking his native Aramean, calls it Yigar Sahaduta, also, literally, a monument of witness. My sense is that the meaning of the monument’s testimony was profoundly different depending on whether you heard Jacob’s story, in Hebrew, or Laban’s, in Aramaic. It was one place, solemnizing one covenantal relationship, but representing two irreducibly different stories.
I personally tasted this type of tension when I recently toured the West Bank as part of an Encounter Program intensive, joining 30 rabbis, educators, and Jewish communal leaders in and around Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, and Ramallah. It was a profoundly intense experience, and uniquely destabilizing. In part, it was because we glimpsed how so many Gal-Eds in the land of Israel are also Yigar Sahadutas. While the intimately familiar topography and landmarks testify to the truth and justice of my story, they, just as resolutely, testify their mirror image to someone else.
It would be easy if there was a middle ground that could achieve consensus. In that case, each side could give up a little of its truth for the sake of building a common narrative. However, history proves just how difficult it is to abandon one’s truth, one’s history, even for the sake of peace and co-existence. In a way, Jacob had it easy; even though he was bound to Laban by blood and by covenant, they lived in different countries. Gal-Ed/Yigar Sahaduta marked a border, with a different story prevailing on either side. Israelis and Palestinians do not have that relative luxury. They have to share their monuments and find a way to live with the irreducible instability of their conflicting testimonies.
During the trip, the organizers emphasized the twin values of ‘Ometz and ‘Anavah, courage and humility, in short, the ability to both forcefully defend one’s own perspective as well as appreciate someone else’s. It may not be a sure path to a negotiated political solution, but it is a path to spiritual growth, and that is just as needed in any conflict zone.
Perhaps, as Jacob emerges from his encounter with Laban, it was this lesson and these values that prepare him to assume his new role as Yisrael, the one who grows through constant struggle. And for us all, as we continue this weekend to offer our appreciation for the blessings that we enjoy, food and football included, today’s Torah portion reminds us that there is always another side to the story.
Based on remarks delivered Friday evening, November 24
The Hampton Synagogue, NY