Thawing frozen identity

Who is somebody?  How do we define a person?  Too often we seem to apply a frozen understanding of identity.  We categorize people by gender or skin tone, by ethnicity or theology, by biology or birthplace. by how they vote or where they reside.  Moreover, they get inventoried once and for all time.  Who they are is who they will always be.

Today’s phenomenon known as ‘identity politics’ was repudiated long ago in an 1858 address by Abraham Lincoln.  Five years prior to establishing Thanksgiving as a National Holiday, Lincoln spoke to the reality that more than half of the country’s citizens were born abroad.  Yet because our nation has always been more about ideas than identity, he insisted that “they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration (of Independence), and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men (and women) together.”

When we insist that those who are unlike us cannot possibly understand us, that those who have not endured what we’ve endured have no standing to speak to our predicament, then we forsake our founding principles.  New York Times Columnist Bari Weiss suggests, “The antidote to identity politics is imagination, a moral and political imagination that allows us to feel the spark of that electric cord even today.”  Imaginative empathy is real and can invite healing change.

An encounter in this week’s portion of Torah reveals how changeable people can be.  Jacob and Esau had become hostile adversaries.  Twenty years earlier, Jacob’s deception left him fleeing for his life.  Back then, Esau was ready to kill him.  With the passage of time and some good-will gestures, their reunion is forgiving and healing.  In response to Jacob’s restorative gifts, Esau is magnanimous.  “I have enough my brother, let what you have remain yours” (Gen. 33:9).  Yet Jacob gently persists,  “Please accept my present…for God has favored me and I have plenty; and when he urged him, he accepted” (Gen. 33:11).  Esau and Jacob had been incompatible opposites.  Yet the impulsive outdoorsman and the manipulative introvert have both matured.  Their frozen identities have thawed.  And so their enmity has been displaced by endearment. 

It is telling that their healing reconciliation is animated by curiosity (mi aileh lach) (Gen. 33:5) and generosity.  Good-will offerings reciprocate.  They can also engender imaginative empathy.   Most of all, they can instill a deep sense of gratitude.  President Lincoln knew this lesson and left us all its legacy with his Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863.  He sought to restore an appreciation for the “blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come…they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

May Jacob and Esau’s ways, and Lincoln’s words, restore generosity, imagination, and thanksgiving to the identities we share and grow in the year ahead.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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