Friday, November 5, 2010

PARASHAT TOLDOT 5771/2010: ENVIRONMENTAL DESENSITIZATION


THE WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE

Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

PARASHAT TOLDOT 5771/2010 

ENVIRONMENTAL DESENSITIZATION

And Esau was forty-two years old when he took  as his wife Yehudit, the daughter of  Be’eri the Hittite and Bosnat, the daughter of Aylon the Hittite.   And they were a source of bitterness of spirit to Isaac and to Rebecca (Genesis 26:35-35).

The sages take note of the fact that, in our text, Isaac is mentioned before Rebecca.   Although this detail appears to be of no consequence in the unfolding of the narrative, the rabbis of the Midrash intuit a profound reason for Scripture’s having mentioned Esau’s father before his mother;

Why was Isaac [mentioned] first?  Surely because Rebecca was the daughter of pagan priests, she was not overly concerned by the odium of idolatry.   However, because he was the son of holy parents,, he [Isaac] was deeply distressed by the ugliness of paganism.  It is for this reason that Isaac was mentioned first [in the context of his son’s marrying into pagan families].  (Genesis Rabbah 68:4)

The noted psychiatrist and scion of a great Chassidic dynasty, Rabbi Abraham Twersky, understood the message of the text in terms of the dynamics of human character development.  Despite Rebecca’s personal antipathy to pagan practices, and not withstanding the fact that she had left her pagan environment no fewer than sixty years earlier, she was not nearly as dismayed as her husband was by Esau’s choice of wives.  Rebecca had been fully exposed to pagan practices and to the moral corruption of idolaters in her youth.  Because those practices had been the norm, she had become desensitized to their negative impact on those for whom it was a normal way of being. Put simply, the message of our text is that even the greatest of abominations lose their odium once we become accustomed to them.


Think back over your own experiences. I grew up in a society where foul language was taboo.  Before the publication Lady Chatterley’s Lover, sexually charged language did not appear in print, and was bleeped out on the broadcast media.  It could certainly not be heard on screen.  Children were chastised when they used vulgar language.  Sexual encounters in movies were implied, not enacted.  Nudity was taboo.  Words describing bodily functions were called bathroom language, and forbidden as expletives. 

When people were first exposed to “forbidden” words, the effect was jarring and they were horrified.  Such speech was not acceptable among decent, cultured and moral people.  But we are no longer shocked.  The taboos have disappeared.  Lovemaking is graphically depicted on screen and nudity has become the norm.  Parents are increasingly comfortable using what used to be called bathroom words when expressing anger and frustration.  The F word has entered the language and has even become synonymous with making mistakes. 

What would have shocked us only a few decades ago goes largely unnoticed nowadays.  Our constant exposure to things and practices previously abhorrent has desensitized us and anesthetized our sensibilities.  Scarcely anything shocks us anymore.  It is all old hat.  And our children, like Rebecca of old, have become acculturated to the lowest common denominators of the contemporary milieu.

The message of our text, however, goes beyond our attitude to language and sexuality.  Our generation has witnessed the erosion of a central Jewish norm.  When I was young, the reenactment of Esau’s experience, the choice of non-Jewish wives by Jewish men, was considered to be a tragedy, and was effectively never sanctioned- unless the women accepted Judaism.  But now the rate of marriage between Jews and gentiles is not significantly different from marriages between Jews.  The previously exceptional announcement of mixed marriages in the national press has become widespread.  Jewish spiritual leaders increasingly perform such marriages, even on the Sabbath, and bask in the glory of the attendant publicity they get.  I’m thinking, for example, of Chelsea Clinton’s widely publicized chuppah on a Shabbat afternoon.

There are many rationalizations for parents’ acceptance of this situation. One is:  “She/he is a fine human being”.  Another is: “After all, we eat in the same restaurants as they, enjoy the same entertainment, have the same education and are more like them than unlike”.  The most prevalent is: “As long as they are happy, why should we risk alienating them with our disapproval”?  Few will acknowledge the bitter truth: “No matter how much we would deny it, our values are more American than they are Jewish.”

The message of our text is not comfortable. It is a wake-up call to parents of impressionable children, alerting them to the ease with which exposure to alien values becomes part of their children’s spiritual and cultural make up.  The Torah seeks to make us conscious of what is Jewishly unacceptable. It warns us to be mindful of   the words we use, and of the long-term, very negative, effects on our families of tolerance of what is inappropriate. 

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