Let’s Visit the Relatives

There is the strangest line in this Torah portion that, for all intents and purposes, goes completely unnoticed.    After describing the Jacob’s quarrel with Esau, Isaac’s settling in Gerar, the digging of wells by Isaac’s servants and a peace agreement with Abimelech, the text throws in a line that comes out of nowhere:

‎ וַיְהִ֤י עֵשָׂו֙ בֶּן־אַרְבָּעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וַיִּקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ אֶת־יְהוּדִ֔ית בַּת־בְּאֵרִ֖י הַֽחִתִּ֑י וְאֶת־בָּ֣שְׂמַ֔ת בַּת־אֵילֹ֖ן הַֽחִתִּֽי׃ וַתִּהְיֶ֖יןָ מֹ֣רַת ר֑וּחַ לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּלְרִבְקָֽה׃

When Esau was forty years old, he took Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite to be his wife, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.

Now, why in the world would the Torah record that Judith and Basemath made life miserable for Isaac and Rebecca?  There is no context, no incident, really nothing that elicits such a comment.

Still, the line is there and it is asking to be interpreted.  What could it mean?

The commentators barely talk about this verse.  Rashi cites a midrash which said, without any evidence, that the misery of Isaac and Rebecca was because Judith and Basemath engaged in idol worship.  Maybe.  But there is not much to learn from that.

So in the great tradition of creative midrash, I am going to make up something.  And my midrash is this: maybe the silence of the reason reflects the fact that, for whatever reason there was enmity, the reason was forgotten but the enmity persisted.  Think of it as the strange verse in ‘Scarborough Fair’ – :And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.”  

Maybe they had been fighting so long that the original reason for the quarrel was ‘long ago forgotten.’  The infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud lasted from 1865 to 1901.  I remember reading about the feud between the Hatfield and McCoys and recall that the descendants of the families could not even recall the reason for the feud although it seems it had  to do with a killing and 13 years later two McCoy family members killed a witness (who was related to both families) and who had testified against them in a court case involving ownership of a stray pig. Can you imagine a blood feud lasting 35 years because of a stray pig?

And yet the enmity between our two Torah families caused ‘great distress.’  No reason is given and so, reading into this, maybe there was no reason in it.  Maybe these two families were miserable simply based on tradition and lacking a full understanding of why they were fighting in the first place.  The only thing they knew was misery and the relationship existed on only that.

We have relationships like that in our own lives.  If we see someone from years back, it seems like yesterday when the feelings of hurt or anger were fresh even though there is absolutely no recall of why that person made us so angry.

And, with Thanksgiving coming, how many nervous families will be sitting down around the table before the anger, jealously, friction, and so forth shows up sometime between the sweet potatoes and the cranberry sauce?  Old feelings are like the stalactites in the deepest cave: hidden from light but always hanging around turning each day into harder rock without us or anyone else even knowing it.

How then to confront these stalactites and prevent them from getting in our way?  I think it depends on the hurt.  Sometimes we don’t know the reason for the anger and often that takes some professional counseling.  And then the road to healing or forgiveness may or may not be something upon which to travel. But sometimes we know exactly what it was and sometimes the reasons are so relatively insignificant now even though they were very hurtful decades ago.

I will share a real story.  I had a friend who once told me he would meet me at the bus stop so we could go downtown.  He never showed up and there I was in the Toronto cold for more than an hour.  I asked him, “Where were you?”  His answer, “I decided it was too cold to go downtown so I stayed home.”  Of course I was furious but I never pursued it.  But I also never forgot it (obviously!).  Did it change my relationship?  Of course.  But only I can determine if it is serious enough to end a relationship.  Though no one can speak for anyone else’s pain, I decided that it was not so serious.  But I bet you and I know people who hang on to grudges for years and years and can’t tell you why they hold the grudge in the first place.

We probably have the grudges sitting quietly until the moment they are once again aroused to life.  And when they are, step back for just a moment and ask if this anger is really worth expressing and if it just to make life miserable.  You may find, like Isaac and Rebecca and Basemath and Judith that the anger is there but the reason for it was long forgotten.

Maybe it is time for a new path.