"Isaac and Abimilech Swear an Oath of Friendship to Each Other," from the 1728 "Figures de la Bible"
"Isaac and Abimilech Swear an Oath of Friendship to Each Other," from the 1728 "Figures de la Bible"

The Torah’s model for civil discourse

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Genesis 25:19-28:9

The excruciating election season is finally over. As I write, I don’t yet know the outcome. But I know that this has been a season of agonizing conflict and division in our country. And regardless of who won and lost, a large percentage of Americans is saddened and enraged by the results. What does the Torah have to teach us about our season of discord?

There is hardly a parasha in the Torah with more conflict stories than this week’s portion, Toldot. We have Jacob and Esau struggling in the womb of their mother, and Jacob steals Esau’s birthright and his firstborn blessing. But a conflict story beyond the family circle has particular relevance to our own experiences of conflict, both interpersonal and communal.

In Chapter 26, we learn that Isaac went down to Gerar in search of food and water in a time of famine, much as his father had done, and as refugees around the world do today. Isaac, also emulating his father, lied to the Philistine king, Avimelech. Believing that the wicked Philistines would kill him if they knew that the beautiful Rebecca was his wife, Isaac said that Rebecca was his sister.

Here we have a universal feature of conflict, whether interpersonal or societal. Each side holds what sociologists call a “conflict narrative” about the other. We are convinced that our adversary is stupid, crazy, or evil, if not all three. This is true across a remarkable array of conflict situations, and it began with Isaac.

This demonized view of the other led Isaac to lie to protect himself. (I shudder to think about the consequences for Rebecca.) But Avimelech uncovered the lie and rebuked Isaac, asking, “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister?’” (Genesis 26:9). Perhaps inspired by Avimelech’s honest communication, Isaac confessed his biased view of the murderous nature of the people of Gerar.

Paradoxically, our forefather Isaac lied and deceived, but the Philistine king Avimelech responded with integrity, “What have you done to us! One of the people might have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us!” (26:10) Avimelech, speaking as a person of integrity, critiqued and disproved Isaac’s prejudiced view, expressing his relief that Isaac’s lie had not led any Gerarite to the sin of claiming Rebecca as his own.

Here we have an element of best practice in conflict resolution. Avimelech asked Isaac to explain his behavior and state of mind, challenging Isaac to explore his underlying beliefs. Once out in the open, Avimelech could easily disprove Isaac’s view of Gerar as the wicked other.

As so many have said and felt during this dreadful political season, demonizing one’s political opponent has become a standard feature of American political discourse. Democrats (myself included) blame Donald Trump for engaging in an unprecedented pattern of derisive language, mocking and dehumanizing anyone who may not cheer him on. Republicans, rightly, point out that this season of incivility in American politics certainly did not begin with Donald Trump, and that Democrats and progressives also engage in sharp and divisive rhetoric.

On this post-election Shabbat, Toldot reminds us that there is another way. In this remarkable story, our “enemy,” Avimelech, engages Isaac in respectful, challenging conversation. Avimelech approaches Isaac as a human being, asks about his motivations, and expresses his own fears and concerns. In this real human exchange, Isaac learns that his “enemy” is actually a righteous person not unlike himself, and from this, blessing flows.

In today’s diseased body politic, there are, in fact, people who are misinformed and a small number who are demonstrably evil. But the great majority of Americans are people who have not yet encountered the political other as a human being, nor come to understand the other’s deep anxieties and values.

We will not begin to heal our broken democracy until we begin again to get to know those on the other side. Continuing to shout into our own echo chambers will not help heal a society riven with conflict and hatred. Neither will avoiding the political other, unless our goal is to divide the United States into two nations, one blue and one red. If we are to live together, we must summon the courage and emotional intelligence to converse in a new way. If you want to contribute to the healing of society, reach out to the other with humility and curiosity, and prepare to be surprised.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.