The Art of Civil Disagreement

About six months back, an article entitled “In Praise of the Dying Art of Civil Disagreement” appeared in the journal First Things. The author recalls an incident in which he and a colleague engaged in a spirited but respectful dispute concerning a divisive issue. He continues:

“Later that evening, a young research student commented to me that it was amazing to see such a trenchant but respectful disagreement on an issue that typically arouses visceral passions. He added that he and those of his generation had 'no idea' (his phrase, if I recall) how such things should be done. Later in the week, my youngest son confirmed that he too had never seen civil disagreement on a matter of importance. This is an ominous, if fascinating, indictment… If we no longer have a university system which models ways of civil engagement on such matters, then the kind of civic virtues upon which a healthy democracy depends are truly a thing of the past.”

The author goes on to analyze some of the underlying causes for the decline of civil disagreement in our society. I’d like to suggest that Parshat Toldot offers one suggestion toward fostering greater respect in our personal and communal interactions.

Toward the end of the parsha, following a dispute over a series of wells, we read of the covenant forged by Yitzchak and Avimelech. The ceremony consisted of an oath and festive meal, the latter of which appears to constitute a symbol of fraternity. One detail, however, remains puzzling. At the story’s conclusion the Torah relates that “they arose in the morning [and] swore to one another” (Bereishit 26:31). Why does the Torah indicate that the king and his entourage stayed the night as opposed to immediately returning home?

While one might simply suggest that they slept over because it would have been unsafe to return home at night, another incident appears to indicate otherwise. After Yaakov flees from his father-in-law Lavan, the latter pursues and eventually overtakes his son-in-law. Despite tension, Yaakov and Lavan ultimately forge an uneasy peace. Following an elaborate oath and ceremony, the Torah records that Yaakov offered a sacrifice, both parties partook of a meal, and “they slept over in the mountain” (Ibid., 31:54). The next morning they awakened early, and Lavan returned home. Although it is possible that here too Lavan was motivated by concerns of safety, the fact that the Torah goes out of its way to stress his staying the night buttresses the notion that the sleepover was not exclusively a function of safety but in fact is an essential component of the biblical covenant.

A halakha seemingly “from left field” clinches the argument. The Mishnah (Bikkurim 2:4) records that one who brings bikkurim, the first fruit, to the Temple, must offer a sacrifice and engage in “lina,” meaning to sleep over in Jerusalem and not leave before the next morning. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 2:3, codified by Rambam in Mishneh Torah Bikkurim 3:12) derives this requirement from a verse that originally appears in relation to the Paschal sacrifice: “U-fanita va-bokoer ve-halachta le’ohalecha,” “You shall arise in the morning and walk to your tent” (Devarim 16:7), implying that one should sleep over after offering the Pesach. In context of the shelamim sacrifice and meal offered alongside the bikkurim or Korban Pesach, which represent a covenant with God, it emerges with clarity that lina is an essential component of the covenantal ceremony.

One basic question remains: why? The symbolism of the meal, which as stated above implies fraternity, is clear. But why stay the night?

Abravanel’s (Bereishit 31) presentation of the requirement of lina offers the beginnings of an answer: “and they ate and stayed over there that night in the manner of fondness and love; in the morning they separated one man from another.” Abravanel implies that, much as the meal, lina is a gesture of love.

To elaborate Abravanel’s suggestion we may propose as follows: Covenants, at least in the above instances, are forged between two parties that were previously, in one way or another, disconnected. An oath, while crucial, is not sufficient to enable the two parties to recommit themselves toward genuinely peaceful interaction. Instead, a renewed sense of trust is essential to the process. This is the purpose of the meal and lina. By dining together, much as heads of state enjoy time together as part of a summit or complex diplomatic negotiation, the parties foster a healthier relationship. By staying the night and not fleeing the moment the formal negotiations are complete, each side demonstrates that their renewed relationship is not a mere formality. Instead, they display the genuineness of their commitment by acting in the manner of true friends. The full covenantal ceremony, then, requires communication (the oath), fraternity (the meal), and commitment (lina).

The take-home for us, both as individuals and a Jewish community, should be self-evident. It is quite easy to disagree. It is far more difficult to build trust and good will even with those with whom we have fundamental differences of opinion. The biblical covenantal ceremony offers us a crucial insight as we look to overcome this challenge: building trust and good will are critical precursors that enable us to talk with those “on the other side of the aisle.” Only then will we be able to take meaningful strides toward reviving the dying art of civil disagreement.