William Hamilton

Where feelings can lead

People who are content with their lot in life, don’t typically feel the urge to harm others. As philosopher Alain de Botton has noted, people are bad because they are in difficulty. They growl because they are not in a good place. “One has to feel very small in order to belittle.”

The folktale of ‘Androcles and the Lion’ offers an illustration. A creature who seems murderous is actually in agony. In the tale, Androcles realizes this. He approaches the lion, gently strokes its mane, then reassuringly extracts a thorn from its paw. As he wraps the wound in gauze, they become friends for life.

Knowing someone’s motivation can help. Until it doesn’t. How helpful, really, is this information to the innocent victim of a mass-shooting?

Moreover, so much of what life throws our way doesn’t appear on our daily planner. It has nothing to do with our self-esteem. We bump into systems that feel rigged and robotic. Often there are larger forces out there that are driving a herd mentality. This is to say nothing of unwelcome news that enters our lives, from the jarring biopsy result to the reckless, swerving motorist.

And then there are emotions like anger, fear, and envy that are part of life, even for the most serenely content among us. These negative feelings send us to darker places. Like a snakebite, they generate poisoning infections that can even make cruelty fester.

This week’s portion of Torah reminds us that such emotions are, alas, part of life. Jacob’s calculated deception of his father Isaac, coordinated by his mother Rebecca, leaves him with a blessing that belonged to his brother Esau. Anguish ensues. Then anger follows. For a third time Jacob listens to his mother’s voice (sh’ma b’koli), as Rebecca instructs Jacob to go away for twenty years to make his family, until his brother’s anger subsides. (ad asher teshuv chamat achicha) (Gen. 27:44).

Yet as justifiably angry as Esau is, he actually impresses readers by the conclusion of this week’s portion. The Torah describes him as heedful. He sees how displeasing marrying Canaanite women is to his parents, so he takes an additional wife from the line of Abraham (Gen. 28:9).

I had always thought that the reason why the text drives our empathy toward Esau when he is denied the blessing intended for him, was to teach that there were more than enough blessings to go around. Perhaps it is also to inspire us to keep our anger from consuming us and harming others.

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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