Total Disconnect

This week’s parashah brings the story of Yaakov and Esav to a temporary conclusion, with Yaakov telling Esav — 36 years after they had last seen each other — that “Va’ani esnahalah l’iti — I will travel at my own pace” until we meet again, at the end of days.

Esav wanted to kill Yaakov ever since Yitzchak gave the brachos to Yaakov. “Yikrevu yemei evel avi,” he said, and I will be able to end his life myself. He wasn’t happy with waiting that long, and he dispatched his eldest son, Elifaz, to kill Yaakov as he left Be’er Sheva.

We all know what Chazal tell us, that Yaakov spent the first 14 years learning Torah in the yeshivah of Ever. Rashi, at the end of Toldos, expresses this in an interesting way, when he says that we know he spent those years in Beis Ever because there is no record of what he was doing then. “Huh vadai — then certainly,” says Rashi, “he spent them in beis medrash.”

There is an obvious question: Since it is so clear that Yaakov wouldn’t have been spending his time anywhere but the beis medrash, why couldn’t Esav (or Elifaz) find him there? Why did Elifaz first catch up to him after the 14 years, when Yaakov was already on his way to Charan?

I heard Harav Mordechai Dov Fine, Rav of Scranton, explain this in such a beautiful and simple way. Esav, he said, was so removed from Yaakov’s world, he simply did not think of the possibility that Yaakov would be in the beis medrash.

This is true about so much in life. People are so removed from the thinking of people they disagree with, they often ascribe the worst of intentions to what they say or do. But more often than not, there are valid reasons for disagreements — but those who are caught up in them are unable to see that.

In the political arena — where conflicts are more public, and where we have the luxury of being uninvested observers — we can see this clearly as it plays out right in front of our eyes.

The right will insist that the left wants nothing more than to fracture the country into racial identity groups in an effort to obtain power. The left will retort that the right only cares about the wealthy and could hardly care less about those groups which are traditionally disenfranchised.

While it is possible (and even probable) that there are many on both sides of the aisle who do think in those terms, it hardly seems legitimate to paint all people with that brush. Can’t it be possible that people have differing beliefs as to the best way to serve the greater good?

Much has been said and written about the polarization of America and how the election has brought the recognition of that to the fore. So much of the analysis was tempered by an attitude similar to that of Pauline Kael, who, legend has it, proclaimed that she could not believe Nixon won 49 states in 1972, when she didn’t know of anyone who voted for him. No wonder so much of it was wrong.

It is only because they cannot understand how people can believe anything different than what they themselves believe.

And it continues. Just about all the coverage of Donald Trump’s transition by those of the left has been a clinic in what not to do if you are trying to convince people that you are unbiased and rational. Judd Legum, founder and EIC of Think Progress, listed the Trump appointees, saying that “Trump’s EPA secretary opposes environmental protection, [his] education secretary wants to dismantle public education … [his] HHS secretary wants to dismantle Medicare … [and his] labor secretary … wants to replace workers with robots.”

Sounds scary, right? In reality, what these nominees all espouse are the mainstream conservative positions for the best ways the government can protect the environment, advance education, save Medicare, and deal with realities in the workforce. But Legum simply can’t understand that because he’s too removed from their way of thinking to be able to process that they might just have a different approach.

The coverage of the agenda being readied for the incoming Congress is no less breathless. Paul Ryan has made no secret of his intentions to repeal and replace Obamacare and to make Medicare and Social Security solvent by changing the program for those under 55 years of age — which basically means that he has other ideas about how these programs ought to be structured to make them work, besides the status quo. But an actual sentence written about these plans by The Week’s Ryan Cooper warns that “Paul Ryan is coming for your insurance and your retirement.”

This utter lack of the capacity to understand what the other side might be thinking is part of what got the left into the predicament they are currently in — having lost the ear of most of America. They seem to be intent on continuing down this road.