Parashat Toldot begins with the pregnancy of Rivka. It is a difficult and uncomfortable pregnancy -- "the children were running around inside her". She and Yitzchak approach God, who informs them: "Two peoples are in your belly, and two nations will separate from your insides. One nation over the other shall be stronger..." (Genesis 25:22-23).
The two boys emerge as twins, the second one out holding the heel of the first. Yet immediately the boys seem different, and they become more so as they grow. The midrash uses this story to explore every facet of the question of "similar but different" or "separate but connected." In the rabbinic period, Yaakov and Esav were understood as Israel and Rome. More poignantly, in the Byzantine period they were Judaism and Christianity. Each midrash has its own reading on the question: How similar are we (Jews) and the other? How different? What means more?
If you look at a map of the United States this week, color coded by the party of its new Congressman, you see a picture vastly red with pockets of blue. If you total all the votes cast in elections for the House of Representatives, you find what looks like about 55 percent for the Republicans and 45 percent for the Democrats. Which is the truer description of similarity and difference among Americans?
I read today a document prepared by a group of Muslim scholars reaching out to the leaders of all the world's major Christian churches. The document spelled out in detail the similarities in the teachings in Christianity and Islam about love of God and love of other human beings. The same document acknowledged the vast amount of lethal weapons in the hands of Christian-led and Muslim-led governments. Which is the truer description of similarity and difference?
It takes very little to activate differences. There is a famous experiment in social psychology called "The Robbers Cave", conducted by Professor Muzafer Sherif. In the study, a group of white middle-class boys, all the same age and from similar backgrounds, were randomly split into two groups and each group was bused to its own camp. Each group bonded, each group gave itself a name -- the Eagles and the Rattlers -- and the boys were initially unaware of the other group.
In the second phase, the groups were brought together under various competitive scenarios. Very quickly, physical violence broke out between the groups. It escalated beyond what the research team had predicted. In the end, Professor Sherif had to generate problems and tasks that threatened both groups or required both groups' participation in order to solve a dramatic problem -- to pull off a rescue, or deal with a water shortage facing both.
The Robbers' Cave study showed that even the smallest differences can become magnified quickly and easily. Professor Sherif would say: even if Yaakov had been as hairy as Esav, if both had been hunters, there would have been conflict if only one could inherit the blessing from their father. Yet if there had been a common threat to unite them, an overarching problem to solve, even the studious Yaakov and the brutish Esav could have come together.
This week, Democrats and Republicans face a choice. Are we so dramatically different, that we have to view the other as a threat to our society? Or can we recognize a common origin in the idea of liberty, even if one child says "equal liberty" and the other says "live free or die"? Can we recognize in the crisis of joblessness something even more important than the difference?
This question goes not just to Obama and Boehner, but to each of us who is worked up about the election, whether our candidate won or lost. It's no secret how much people have invested in the differences, how much of our identities are tied up in our philosophies. Nothing wrong with that. Yet for the good of all of us, we need to be not just Esav, but Yaakov's twin brother. Not just Yaakov, but Esav's twin brother.