While I was preparing my Insight last week,* I noticed a difference of opinions amongst the commentators and within the midrashim on numerous issues including the nature of Esav. To some Esav was one of the greatest rishayim, evil doers, of history. To others, Esav, while objectively not comparable in righteousness to Yaakov and his sons, was, in the context of that generation, not so bad. While this in itself did not really hit me as a new perspective -- I, of course, have seen over the years many disagreements in the Torah literature on numerous matters -- what hit me was the fact that in some of my Insights, I develop a concept based upon one perspective of Esav while in others I develop a concept based on another. This week's Insight was built upon the latter perception of Esav, that he was not so bad, but many other Insights were based upon the former perspective that he was a terrible rasha. What does that say about my Insights over the years in that I fluctuate regarding these different viewpoints? The fact is that I am sure, over the years, I have developed some ideas based upon one perspective -- one side in an argument -- while in others I based my ideas based upon another perspective -- including the other side of an argument. Should I not be consistent in my presentation of Torah?
The fact is that, in regard to the actual personality of Esav, I would answer a question by responding that there is a machloket, a disagreement. The fact is that actual knowledge of Esav's personality is not really my concern and I can live with accepting the reality that I really don't know. In stating that the study of Torah is not a history lesson, we also state that the basic issues of history, including the actual personality of historical figures, is also not really our interest. Our interest, rather, are the ethical lessons that we can learn from these presentations. In that regard, both sides of the machloket are not only equally valid but have equal value in presenting a Torah idea. The bottom line is that ideas developed using one or the other viewpoint still represent, even if contradictory in some basic assumption or perspective, an idea that is acceptable with the corpus of Torah thought. Both are a cheftza shel Torah. Both represent an idea that in the broad gestalt of Torah thought would have to be deemed acceptable. While the actual solution to the question upon which the commentators may disagree would inform us of which position is correct within the confines of this specific case, the fact that a specific idea can even be contemplated and considered and accepted by some within the world of Torah, must inform us that this idea -- even if we disagree with its application is a specific context -- has validity as a Torah thought.
I believe that this idea is actually most important in understanding the concept of eilu v'eilu. While one idea may be accepted as the actual psak l'dorot, the fact that the other idea existed and was considered a possibility must mean that the one who contemplated this idea -- even if he later rejects it on some technical ground -- must mean that the other idea was, at least, perceived as a possibility within the general corpus of Torah. Furthermore, if someone I recognize as a great talmid chacham presents an idea, even if I disagree with its correctness on technical grounds and side against it in psak, the idea must be accepted as theoretically a possibility within the corpus of Torah. It is a cheftza shel Torah. It such has value within our analysis of the ideas within Torah.
Returning to the case of Esav, since I am not really interested in what Esav was really like, the ideas that ensued from both perspectives of Esav do have value in our understanding of Torah. Thus, in discussing the broad realm of Torah ethics, it is not really contradictory to develop a general Torah ethical perspective quoting perspectives from both sides of the technical argument of what Esav was really like. If both ideas exist within the realm of Torah, they are both a cheftza shel Torah. They both have a place in trying to understand the corpus of Torah.
Rabbi Ben Hecht
*For those who may not be familiar with them, the Insight is a short dvar Torah that Nishma puts out almost every week. To see examples of past Insights, see the Nishma website at http://www.nishma.org/. To receive more recent Insights and future ones, please sign up on the Nishma mailing requesting Insight by email (they are also available in snail mail in groups of five).