Ah Toldot. The birth of our third patriarch, Jacob, and his twin brother Esau; the two boys who even in the womb struggled against one another. I love that this parsha always seems to find its way to be around Thanksgiving, as it seems a holiday meant to be about gratitude always seems to include mentions of family members fighting. In the 25th chapter of Genesis, Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, gives birth to her sons: “The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.”
If you read the story, you’ll soon learn that Esau is all brawn, a man’s man, a hunter, tough and strong, favored by his father, and, as it turns out, lacking any intellectual curiosity, or sensitivity. Jacob, on the other hand, favored by his mother, stays in the camp and helps her; he spends his time thinking, learning, growing intellectually, perhaps getting in touch with his feelings. And there you have it folks, the two stereotypical men in this world, the two hyperbolic understandings of how a man can be in society. A weight lifting, spitting, Rolling Stones listening, truck driving, hard-working, house building, football watching, man’s man; and a quiet, intellectual, sensitive, artistic, loving, journal writing, piano playing, staying up late studying, romantic comedy watching, gentleman. No doubt these two brothers had names for one another; Jacob probably called Esau the biblical equivalent of being “thickheaded,” and Esau probably called Jacob a “momma’s boy.” Obviously, there are many more kinds of men than these two polar opposites, those in the middle, who refuse to be stereotyped or fulfill the stereotypes, but in today’s world, we don’t hear much about those in the middle do we? We are polarized in every way, pointing fingers and labeling one another.
If you’re on social media as much as I am, you’ll see this polarized hyperbolizing behavior mostly within our political realm, with Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals, moving further and further away from one another, calling each other names and stereotyping. Conservatives are labeled as “right wing nut jobs,” and Liberals are labeled as “snowflakes.” And we wonder why we don’t have more bi-partisanship these days…
Now, normally I don’t take a great deal of flack from either side personally, but this past week, something on my TwitterFeed caught my eye. A poster, featuring Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren, started to make its way around social media, thanks to a conservative group called Turning Point USA. With a giant picture of Lahren, looking indignant, the poster read: “Dear liberal snowflakes, nothing is free, crying doesn’t solve problems, screaming doesn’t make you right, not everyone is a winner, there are no safe spaces.”
To be fair, a few liberal organizations answered right back with their own posters of Lahren, with phrases such as: Dear Liberal snowflakes, we spent yesterday filming ourselves destroying expensive coffee makers because they don’t support our friend on TV who gives a free pass to pedophiles,” referring to Keurig’s decision to remove ads from Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, after he showed support to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and the subsequent flurry of videos on social media of outraged Sean Hannity fans taking a baseball bat to their own Keurig machines. Clever? Maybe, but not terribly productive. In any case, I really didn’t like Turning Point USA’s description of who they call “Liberal Snowflakes.” Let’s take politics out of this for a moment, and focus on the word “snowflake.” It’s obvious what this is meant to imply: someone delicate, weak, small, and sensitive. Now listen to their advice for such a person, “crying doesn’t solve problems.” Again, the not-so-subtle message here is that you shouldn’t cry when you’re upset because it doesn’t do anything. The poster also let us know that “not everyone is a winner.” In other words, no participation trophies for you. There are winners and there are losers. If you’re not a winner, you’re a loser and that’s that. And it doesn’t take much to read between the lines and understand that the same people who cry to solve problems are also the losers. A winner, in their mind, is someone who is most likely tough, maybe successful in some way, wealthy perhaps, strong minded? In other words, a real “Esau.” A loser, then, is someone who is sensitive, who cries, who works hard but may not be the CEO or the director, someone who stays inside the camp, a real “Jacob.” And let’s not forget the last thing the poster tells us, “there are no safe spaces.” In other words, you should be prepared to be insulted, bullied, hurt, made fun of, or embarrassed and therefore the solution isn’t to try and do away with the bullies but instead to simply toughen up.
The poster worries me, and frankly, bothered me, because when you remove the political rhetoric, you get some pretty unhealthy values for adults and children alike. I’ve spent many years as a rabbi fighting against the bullying behaviors we see in our schools but also in adult life. I’ve fought against words like “oversensitive,” and phrases like, “get a thicker skin.” I, like so many in my field, have fought against these words because they’re just not representative of the real world. To call someone “oversensitive” implies that there is a specific level of sensitivity that we should all have, no more, no less. This is, of course, subjective. I was listening recently to an episode of This American Life called “Call Me Fat,” about people who self-identify as “fat,” trying to do away with words like “overweight,” for the same reason. It implies that there is a specific weight we are supposed to be at, and if we’re not that weight, we’re failing somehow, which is just not true in regards to age, height, genetics, etc, despite what TV, magazines, and movies portray. In the same way, to be “oversensitive” means that if we’re not the right level of sensitive, we’re failing. If our skin isn’t thick enough, we’re not living correctly. Something’s wrong with us. It’s ideas like this that cause oppressors and bystanders to blame the victims of abuse and bullying: “You just need to toughen up.”
All of this, including my past experiences of being bullied, came flooding back to me as I read the poster over and over; but suddenly something changed. Suddenly, I started feeling something different: empowered. I thought to myself, “you know what? I am a snowflake!”
Maybe some people think “nothing is free,” but I think some things should be free. Like people, speech, the press, and maybe one day food and medicine. Maybe some think that “crying doesn’t solve problems,” but I know as a psychology major, a rabbi, a father, and a husband, that crying does help sometimes. It cleanses our souls, releases stress and anxiety, shows empathy and love. Some may think that “not everyone is a winner,” but I know that the word “winner” is subjective. And that the only reason you’re not a winner is because you say so, not them. Of course, there are winners in sports games, races, and elections, but in life, the only opponent we’re playing against is ourselves. So, I see it differently: not everyone knows yet that they’re a winner. And finally, to those that say, “there are no safe spaces,” I have to respectfully disagree. I’ve created many, and been a part of many. Safe spaces are places where we can be ourselves, places where we’re encouraged to speak to one another with respect and dignity even if we disagree. And if you’re not sure, just know that down the hall is a safe space, my office, where so many of you have come to talk to me. This worship space is a safe space, where you can express yourself, sing, pray, cry, or just sit quietly, and no one will judge you. I’m proud to have safe spaces, and I think I’d rephrase that part to “not every place is a safe space, yet.”
Finally, I’m just not sure Turning Point USA picked the right word in using the word “snowflake” as pejorative. A snowflake may be small, sensitive to the touch, that’s true. However, I don’t know about you, but the one thing I always learned about snowflakes is that there isn’t a single one that’s alike. They’re all unique. According to scientists and meteorologists, “the chances of two snowflakes being exactly alike are about 1 in 1 million trillion:”
As snowflakes tumble through the air, swirling and spiraling, they each take a different path to the ground. Each snowflake falls and floats through clouds with different temperatures and moisture levels, which shapes each snowflake in a unique way. Even though two snowflakes may form in the same cloud, their different journeys to the ground will affect their shape and size, giving each snowflake its own unique identity.
Sounds to me that being a snowflake is the same as being human. We each take a different path, we each experience life differently and life actually shapes us, inside and out, giving us our own unique identity, our level of sensitivity, our level of intellectualism, our level of inner and outer strength. Sorry to say to Turning Point USA, but it seems like you’re snowflakes, too. We all are. And maybe instead of hiding behind hyperboles and metaphors, or even caricatures like Jacob and Esau, maybe we should just stand in the cold together, taking in each other’s different shapes and sizes, our different views, our different identities, and appreciate them.