A Lion or a Bear?

A friend recently commented to me that nowadays, we are not only “multi-tasked,” but we also have “multi-problems.” When simultaneously beset by a number of problems, he continued, it becomes necessary to prioritize those problems and to decide which one is the worst. Then, we can tackle that problem first before we move on to the others.

Personally, I’m not so sure that we are the first generation to be involved in “multi-tasks,” and I’m certain that we are not the first generation to face “multi-problems.” Certainly, we, the Jewish people, have known times in our history when we confronted numerous problems at the same time, and over the course of our history, our problems were innumerable.

In fact, we even debate over which of our enemies was worse. For example, the question has been asked over and over again, “Who was worse? Pharaoh or Haman? Haman or Hitler?” Are we to judge our enemies by the extent of their sadism, by their success or failure, or by the number of their victims?

Last week, and again this week, the Torah portion gives us the opportunity to compare two of our classic enemies, Laban and Esau, with each other. Laban, to say the least, was inhospitable to our Forefather Jacob. He was ungrateful and deceitful. Moreover, we are told in the Passover Haggadah that he sought to completely undo us.

Certainly, he was a formidable enemy. But let’s compare him to Esau. Remember that it was because of Esau that Jacob fled to find refuge in the house of Laban in the first place. Remember too that Rebecca herself informed Jacob of Esau’s murderous intentions against him: “Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob… And Esau said to himself, ‘Let the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.’” Despite the statement in the Passover Haggadah, there is no clear evidence in the Biblical text itself that Laban wished to kill Jacob.

As we see in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), Jacob is far more frightened of Esau than he is of Laban. From the beginning of their relationship, Jacob is rather confident that he could deal with Laban’s deceitfulness quite competently. Throughout their relationship, Jacob has no problem negotiating with Laban, and much to Laban’s frustration, he eventually succeeds. Laban may intend to harm Jacob, but one divine dream dissuades him from doing so. Laban and Jacob part company relatively peacefully.

On the other hand, we quickly learn that Esau comes to meet Jacob with four hundred men, presumably well-prepared for battle. “Jacob was greatly frightened.” He fears the overwhelming threat of Esau’s attack and prepares for this attack by every means at his disposal: bribery, strategic maneuvers, and prayer.

Clearly, then, Esau is the greater enemy of the two. I always thought that that was because of Esau’s wickedness—that is, until I recently came across a passage in the Midrash with which I was previously unfamiliar. I encountered it in one of the weekly sermons on the Torah portion delivered by one of today’s Hasidic masters of both traditional Talmudic scholarship and profound spiritual wisdom. I refer to the Tolner Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Menachem Weinberg, may he be well, who currently resides and teaches in Jerusalem.

The passage that Rabbi Weinberg brought to my attention begins with a verse in the writings of the prophet Amos (5:19): “As a man should run from a lion and be attacked by a bear…” The Midrash continues: “The man is Jacob… The lion is Laban from whom Jacob fled. He is called a lion because he pursued Jacob to take his life. The bear is Esau who attacked him on the road… The lion knows shame, the bear knows no shame.”

I am certainly no expert on wildlife, but I’m sure we will all agree that the lion has a reputation for greater ferocity than the bear. Yet the Midrash considers the bear more dangerous. Why?

Rabbi Weinberg, in his analysis of this Midrash, focuses on the very essence of Esau’s personality. He reminds us of the verse in last week’s Torah portion in which we learned that “they called him by the name of Esau.” Rashi informs us that “they”—all who knew him—called him “Esau,” which means “completely made, all done, finished.” Esau was a finished product. He was born resembling an adult, physically and behaviorally. And he remained that type of person throughout his life. He never changed.

There are people who are so confident of themselves, of their motives and attitudes and actions, that they see no reason to change. They are not open to criticism. They have not even a single measure of self-doubt. Such people, our Midrash suggests, can never be ashamed. They are bold and brazen and impervious to criticism. That is the nature of the bear, who knows no shame. Such a person is truly dangerous. Such a person was Esau.

The lion, on the other hand, is open to opinions. If he errs and is made aware of his errors, he feels ashamed. As a result, he takes his errors to heart and alters his behavior. He develops and grows and changes in the course of his interaction with others. He is willing to consider other people’s perspectives. He can change his mind. Perhaps this is why he, and not the bear, is the king of beasts.

Let us move on from the animal kingdom and reflect upon two very different types of human beings. There are those who, like the bear, insulate themselves from the opinions of other people. They shut the door to the suggestions of others and close their ears to constructive criticism.

Not only do such individuals not develop over the course of their lifetime, but they pose a threat to society, especially if they are in positions of leadership.

But there are others who, like lions, not only tolerate criticism but seek it out. They know well the 48 qualifications for a Torah scholar. Among them are that he “love mankind, love righteousness and justice, and love admonishment.” (Avot 6:6) That’s right—love admonishment, love constructive criticism, love rebuke. That’s how one grows to be a lion, a royal personality, a true talmid chacham.

In an earlier column, written just two weeks before this one, I contrasted the personality of the “Eagle,” whose soars ever upwards toward the light, with the personality of the “Bat,” who flees the light. This week, I contrast the “Bear,” who cannot be ashamed and thus cannot develop and grow, with the “Lion,” who lets himself experience shame and thereby is enabled to develop and grow.

The ideal Jewish leader is like the eagle and is always in search of new experiences and new opportunities. He is also like the lion who is not ashamed when others alert him to his faults, but who uses the input of others to foster self-improvement.

We can now comprehend that when our Sages speak of the eagles and bats and lions and bears, they are not being simplistic. Quite the contrary, they are wisely employing those simple creatures as templates for teaching us profound lessons about personal development.

Hopefully we will take those lessons to heart.