Toldot and Gaza: Heroes and villains

Toldot tells the story of Yaacov’s successful acquisition of his father’s blessing and the role of forefather to the Jewish people.  Clearly he is the hero of the story, in the sense that he is the protagonist, but is he the good guy?  If we strip away our midrashic pre-conceptions, Esav comes off pretty well, and Yaacov’s behaviour seems pretty shabby.  Esav’s anger certainly seems justified from his perspective.  What does he do that is so terrible that he merits becoming the archetype of the evil non-Jew in midrashic literature?

The continuation of the story, when seen in this light, is one of Yaacov overcoming his early failures and growing in the process.  That is what makes him worthy of founding the Chosen People.  We can identify with him as the hero, even if we understand that his behaviour was not always exemplary.  That is the glory of our tradition.

Last night, I was visiting Tel Aviv when the sirens went off.  I got a small taste of what our countrymen in the south have been living with for years.  Walking through Neve Tzedek, it was not clear where to go or what to do, and the alarm ended before we figured it out.  It was a frightening experience.

I know who the heroes are in this story.    No country can allow its population to experience rockets landing on a daily basis and allow it indefinitely.  I know from first hand accounts how hard the IDF tries to avoid civilian casualties when fighting in Gaza and elsewhere.  I have no doubt about where my sympathies lie.

At the same time, I always try to remember that how we see the world is shaped by our narratives.  When I see a death toll of 100 Palestinians to 1 Israeli (this even according to the IDF) as there was in Operation Cast Lead, I am glad that so few of my countrymen were killed, and knowing what I know as an insider I trust that the IDF was as restrained as it could be.  I understand, though, that with numbers like that, third parties and even more so Palestinians, are going to see things differently.  Their narrative will necessarily look different, and they will identify heroes and villains – and victims – differently than I do.

Often during a flare-up of tensions, someone on my Facebook posts Golda Meir’s famous quote that if the Arabs loved their children as much as they hated us, there would be peace.  I totally reject that approach.  I know Palestinian individuals, and I know how much they love their children.    This kind of rhetoric reflects a complete failure to envision the narrative of the other side.  Even if you reject that narrative, trying to see the world through another’s eyes makes them more human to you.

I got a small taste last night of what the victims on the Israeli side feel – fear, a sense of powerlessness and smallness.  At this juncture, I see no alternative but for my government to use our military power to restore quiet.  In the longer term, I hope that if both sides could take a moment to see that the other side has a story too, that they are not just rabidly evil, then maybe, just maybe, we could find a way to live together.

Yaacov and Esav never see eye to eye about what happened in their childhood, but when they meet as adults they are able to see each other’s perspective and move forward.  May the deeds of the fathers be a sign to the children.

About the Author
Shawn Ruby is a recent refugee from Israeli hi-tech, launching a new career in Rabbinics and education. He is a veteran immigrant to Israel from Canada, via the US. He is married with 3 children. Older blog posts at