November 13th, 2015
There is an ancient phenomenon described in the Torah, that happens again and again. Strangely, it also happens to be a contemporary phenomenon. It’s called scapegoating. I guess one can say as long as there are human beings around, there is scapegoating.
Take for example, the book of Genesis. It is full of stories of scapegoating, stories that tell of shattered hearts left in the wake of rejection and exclusion. Consider just a few examples:
The damage this inflicts is heartbreaking. Consider Esau’s response to his twin’s tricking him out of his blessing: “He cried an exceedingly great and bitter cry. And he says to his father, Bless me too father”. A few verses later he says: “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, father!’ And Esau lifted up his voice and wept”.
According to family systems therapy, a therapeutic approach that sees each person as part of a whole system rather than seeing each individual as a psychological world unto themselves, we often assign one person in the family to be the sacrifice, or to use another commonly used phrase, the black sheep of the family. The theory is that families scapegoat one person to avoid dealing with ongoing deeper issues that arouse considerable anxiety and pain, a fate more painful than projecting their own darkness outwards. Of course, this can happen not only in families, but in any system we find ourselves–the workplace, communities, society at large. One person, or one group of people, is scapegoated to relieve the rest of the group of their own discomfort and vulnerability. We know this phenomenon has disastrous effects on smaller and larger systems and that when we look to history (and also to current events for that matter) we see whole populations scapegoated and slaughtered.
Esau’s wounded voice echoes throughout the Torah all the way from Genesis to the Book of Esther. Generations after Esau and Jacob, Mordechai, Jacob’s descendant, finds out that Haman, Esau’s descendant, plans to destroy the Jewish people. He, just like Esav, “cries an exceedingly great and bitter cry”, וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדוֹלָה וּמָרָה. Esau’s pain is so powerful that it manifests in the evil of his descendant and Jacob’s descendants still suffer because of what Jacob did so long ago. Esau’s cry travels through the generations to rise up again hundreds of years later.
Thus, the Torah shows us, scapegoating someone can have disastrous effects that resound forward. Given this far-reaching damage, it’s worth asking yourself now (yes, right now!) about your own family, workplace or community – who, if anyone, is being scapegoated? Who feels regularly excluded, shut out, or even worse, despised and unacceptable? Who is the rejected one in your midst? Who is everyone else projecting their unwanted feelings onto?
Very likely in your various settings this issue is not as extreme as it is in the Torah. But still– small and large exclusions and rejections happen daily in human society. If they happen again and again to the same person or people in the system, then the roles in that system have ossified, and what is happening can be appropriately termed “scapegoating”.
The key, according to family system theorists, is to be able to tolerate your own anxiety and feelings of vulnerability, your own feelings of shame so that you’re not heaping them onto the people closest to you.
But this is no easy task. As it says in the Wisdom of the Fathers (4:1): “Who is mighty? One who conquers their impulse to evil, as it is written, “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one who rules over their spirit better than one who conquers a city” . (Proverbs 16:32)
Tolerating all the hard to bear feelings that bubble up within us makes us mighty, makes us warriors. In the end, it’s not the power we have over others that counts, but the strength to withstand all the discomfort, vulnerability and anxiety that comes from deep within. To be able to do that, without heaping our own stuff onto another, makes us warriors of everyday life — warriors who understand that kindness is the most effective and heroic weapon of them all.