Firstly, thank you Menachem Butler for introducing me to Dr. Michael Rosen’s incredible work on the Polish Hasidic leader R’ Simhah Bunim, The Quest for Authenticity. I can’t wait to finish it and then read it again with greater insight.
Here’s a thought on this week’s parsha from the book’s first chapter:
The Yehudi used to teach the following midrash: R. Shimon ben Gamliel said, “Nobody honored their parents more than I, and yet I found that Esau did. Because when I served my father I would wear dirty clothes and dress , and when I went outside I would get rid of the dirty clothes and dress in fine clothes. But Esau didn’t behave like this: he would serve his father (at all times) in his best clothes.
The Yehudi asks, “Why couldn’t R. Shimon ben Gamliel wear fine clothes while serving his father, as did Esau?” He answers,
Clothes are also a means of projecting an image. Esau serving his father in his best clothes is a way of saying that he projected a positive image of himself to his father…[the Rabbis say that] he would ask his father how one tithes hay and salt. And thought he deceived his father [with his supposed piety] ultimately Isaac would not have wanted to have been deceived; to the contrary, he would have preferred to have seen his son’s faults in order to correct them. Nevertheless, for a moment, Isaac enjoyed tranquility, imagining that his son was behaving correctly.
It is regarding this (approach of Esau) that R. Shimon ben Gamliel said, “I am unable to honor my father like Esau.” He was not prepared to hide his faults from his father. On the contrary, he wears his dirty clothes. That is to say, he will reveal his reality to his father, his character faults, warts, and all. And though his father would ultimately approve of such an approach because it allows him to correct the character failings of his son and to show him the Godly path, nevertheless, for the moment his father was upset.
Therefore (says the Yehudi), R. Shimon be Gamliel could not honor his father as Esau did…the Yehudi held that a relationship, be it with oneself, with another human being, or with G-d, is impossible without personal truthfulness, and that he was willing to pay a painful price for such a relationship.
Sometimes, in order to deepen a relationship, we have to seriously disappoint someone who we care about, and, in a perfect world, would do anything and everything to protect them from pain. But without preludes of pain, we cannot return to the chorus; the essence of why we connect and are connected. It’s our parents who teach us whether we can be imperfect and precious at the same time; that teach us we can be seen in our dirty clothes and continue onto many moments of grace and strength. And perhaps even more importantly, they teach us that we can see others when they aren’t at their best, and still see a world of good in them.