The Season of Nuance

For years now, my main message has been one of nuance, of understanding, of making the effort to see a viewpoint that isn’t mine and to truly understand it, even if I continue to reject it.
In the days following October 7, there was no room for that—the atrocities of that day, including the kidnappings of over 200 souls for whom we still must fight for their release, are devoid of nuance. We must understand those actions not in order to accept them but in order to fight them and prevent them.
But as Ecclesiastes says, to everything there is a season. And the season of nuance has not disappeared.
This week’s Torah portion sets the stage for a vengeful Esau to seek to kill the crafty Jacob. And while the biblical Jacob is full of flaws, he is the ancestor of the Jewish people, and so our sympathies clearly lie with him and not with his bloodthirsty brother.
And so, a simple teaching of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (Rashbag) comes as such a surprise. If the Biblical Esau is a shady character, the midrashic Esau seems to be evil incarnate. But Rashbag sees one aspect of Esau as a model for us, noting that Esau kept his nicest garments at home in order to wear them when he served his father. “If only I had a percent of Esau’s honor for his father,”  says Rashbag.
What an amazing midrash! The source of Israel’s fear and subjugation is seen for one of his most admirable traits. And so we learn that Esau is not in fact pure evil, but someone whose character is complicated, and includes even model behavior.
I do not want to mince words—I am not calling Hamas an Esau that we must see the good in. That ship has sailed. But experiencing evil in one place does not mean that we must deduce the whole world to good versus evil. Our tradition teaches that there are moments of black and white, but there is also the need for nuance, sometimes in the most unexpected places.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is quoted elsewhere in our tradition in another important insight. “The world stands on three things: on justice, on truth, and on peace.” Justice and truth do not mean that one side of an idea or a person is pure evil. Justice and truth mean that the wrongness of a side must be righted, but that we almost strive to see the complexity. And indeed, when we can see the true complexity, and fight what is wrong while accepting (or even adopting) what is right—we have a pathway to peace.
May this be a true Shabbat shalom, and may this be the last Shabbat in which we pray for the return of the hostages.

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