The first half of the 20th century heralded a building boom of public swimming pools in the US. These were not dinky little DIY neighborhood projects. Rather, communities all over the country were building grand, resort-style, pools, the kind that could hold hundreds, even thousands, of swimmers. Of course, this being early 20th century America, most of these public pools were exclusively for white people. People of color, and particularly Black Americans, were not allowed to swim in these pools.
Around the 1950’s, however, as the Civil Rights movement began to intensify, Black Americans started to advocate for equal access to these pools. After all, they argued, tax dollars from Black Americans just as much as from white Americans helped fund these facilities. Why should white people be allowed to swim but not Black people? Pretty soon, all over the country, and especially in southern communities like Richmond, courts began ordering the desegregation of public swimming pools.
What happened next, however, was extraordinary: communities decided to drain their pools rather than let Black families swim, too. The city of Montgomery, Alabama, for example, used to have one of the finest public pools in the country which, of course, was whites-only. In 1958, courts ordered Montgomery to integrate its pool, and all other municipal recreation facilities, by the beginning of the next year. Instead, on January 1, 1959, city officials filled the pool with dirt and paved it over. And what’s more — they closed down the entire parks and recreation department of Montgomery for a decade, even going so far as to sell off all the animals in the city zoo.
In her recent book, The Sum Of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together, researcher and racial justice advocate Heather McGhee uses the example of what happened to public pools in the 50’s and 60’s to show the harmful impact of zero-sum thinking, the mindset that says, in our society, one person’s gain will inevitably mean another’s person’s loss. Drawing from a wealth of economic and political data, McGhee argues that this perspective is particularly prevalent among white Americans, who fear that demographic change threatens their share of society’s blessings, that progress for people of color has to come at white people’s expense. This fear in turn drives white Americans to embrace policies that prevent upward mobility for people of color, even when those policies are also against their own self-interest.
You can see this everywhere, if you’re willing to look. It’s in the decades-long dismantling of welfare in this country, and our elected leaders’ ongoing refusal right at this very moment to strengthen the social safety net, even though most beneficiaries of government services are white. It’s in the fight against universal health care, even though the majority of people without health care are white. It’s in our shameful unwillingness to combat climate change, even though we all live under the same sky and are all ultimately vulnerable to its effects. It’s in the relentless push to deny women the right to make decisions about their own bodies, the ugly protests that have erupted in school districts against mask mandates and the ability of teachers to tell the truth about American history, in widespread voter suppression and disenfranchisement. Just this week we saw that agenda carry the day right here in Virginia and across the country, campaigns funded by dark money, amplified by cable news and social media, advanced by cynical or callous or cowardly politicians, and enabled by our apathy, inattention, confusion, and plain exhaustion, all designed to secure society’s blessings for some by denying those blessings for others, but in reality harming us all.
But here’s the thing I want us to remember, now and always: blessings are not a finite resource. There are in fact always more blessings to go around.
In this week’s parashah, Toldot, Isaac is approaching the end of his life and wants to give a blessing to his firstborn and most beloved son Esau. Rebekah, who favors Jacob, contrives to have Jacob receive the blessing instead. Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing.
Shortly thereafter, Esau appears before Isaac seeking his blessing. Isaac becomes incredibly, visibly distressed, realizing that Jacob must have “come with guile” and taken the blessing for himself (Gen. 27:35). Despite this, Esau urges his father, “Bless me, too!” (27:34).
But Isaac contends that since he already gave the blessing away, he couldn’t possibly bless Esau. “What, then,” Isaac asks, rhetorically, “can I still do for you, my son?” (27:37).
For whatever reason, Isaac clearly sees the situation as zero-sum. From his perspective, blessings are finite resources. In order for Esau to receive a blessing, he reasons, Jacob has to be denied it, or vice-versa. It’s unclear whether Rebekah and Jacob see things the same way, although, to be fair to Isaac, Rebekah related to her two sons with a zero-sum mentality, bestowing all her love on Jacob, just as Isaac bestowed all his love on Esau. But even if Rebekah and Jacob don’t believe in their heart of hearts that blessings are finite, they act as if they do, exploiting and reinforcing Isaac’s zero-sum mentality.
I want us, though, to pay attention to Esau’s response here, because he’s the only one in the story who is able to see the truth of the situation. Esau, for his part, is heartbroken, not only over discovering his brother’s deceit, but also over his father’s insistence that he had no more blessings to give. Through bitter tears, Esau asks the haunting question, “הַֽבְרָכָ֨ה אַחַ֤ת הִֽוא־לְךָ֙ אָבִ֔י / Have you but one blessing, Abba? בָּרְכֵ֥נִי גַם־אָ֖נִי אָבִ֑י / Bless me too, Abba!”
Esau’s emotional plea breaks through Isaac’s recalcitrance. Isaac blesses Esau with a blessing that, while different from the one bestowed upon Jacob a few verses earlier, is upon close inspection no less generous. It turns out that when we open ourselves up to it, there are in fact always more blessings to go around.
I wish I could say that they all lived happily ever after. Ultimately, everyone got a blessing, right? But the drama over Isaac’s blessing had lasting negative ramifications. Esau resents Jacob and vows to kill him. Jacob is forced to run away, never to see his mother or father again, and repeatedly receives comeuppance for his deception. The two brothers are estranged for decades, and their descendants remained hostile to one another for millennia. Isaac and Rebekah never again share a scene, much less a conversation, after this parashah.
Treating blessings as finite resources harms everyone in the story, not only the person who is denied the blessing, but also the person who gives the blessing and even the one who conspires to receive it at another person’s expense.
Imagine how differently the story would have played out if Isaac, and perhaps Rebekah too, had realized from the outset that blessings were in fact available for both sons, that no one had to lose in order for someone to win, that one person’s quote-unquote loss would negatively impact the other person’s quote-unquote win, that indeed everybody was going to succeed, or fail, together.
Here’s the truth our parashah reveals: When we try to secure blessings for ourselves at others’ expense, everyone ends up getting hurt, ourselves included. And when we are willing to share the blessings, we will find that there is more than enough to go around.
True, our world’s resources are finite. It’s impossible for everyone to enjoy every blessing our world has to offer equally and simultaneously. But it’s also true that we are blessed to live in a world, and in particular in a country, and even more especially at a time, when there is more than enough wealth to go around, more than enough for everyone to have all they need, if we could only break free of our zero-sum mindset. And what’s more, when we do this, we will not only discover that many of our resources are much less scarce than we might have assumed, we will generate more through our cooperation.
As McGhee proves in The Sum of Us, seeing each other as partners, rather than as competitors, in securing society’s blessings yields its own dividends. For example, in the years immediately following the great legal and legislative successes of the Civil Rights movement, there was a dramatic increase, particularly in the South, in things like schools, libraries, and infrastructure — public works that benefited everyone, black and white. When we cooperate instead of compete, when we try to lift one another up instead of trying to tear each other down, when we see our welfare as bound up with the welfare of others, and when we see how other people’s struggles hold us back as well as them, we will not only share in each other’s blessings, we will multiply them, and we will all reap the benefits. But to do this, we have to stand strong against powerful forces in our civic life trying to convince us that as more people share in our society’s blessings, our portion will diminish, and that the only way for some of us to succeed is for other people to lose.
Some of you have heard me share a Jewish folktale about heaven and hell. In Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s telling of this story, a soul once arrived before the Throne of Divine Judgment, and was determined to have lived a life that was evenly balanced between good and bad. So the soul is permitted to choose between ascending to heaven or spending eternity in hell. The soul asks to see the two places before deciding, and is first escorted to hell. He is shocked to discover that hell is an exquisite palace, situated upon opulent, perfectly manicured grounds. Inside the castle is an ornate dining room, with a sumptuous banquet, replete with every imaginable delicacy, laid out upon a long table. But when the inhabitants of hell enter the hall, they are sad and emaciated. As they sit down for the feast, the soul realizes the problem — the inhabitants of hell have no elbows, so they cannot feed themselves. The soul is profoundly disturbed by the scene, and insists on being shown heaven immediately. To his great surprise, heaven looks exactly the same as hell. The same palace, the same dining hall, the same magnificent banquet. The inhabitants file in for dinner and the soul notices that, just as in hell, these souls also have no elbows. Yet unlike the inhabitants of hell, those who dwell in heaven are happy and well fed. What, then, was the difference? The only difference between heaven and hell was that the inhabitants of heaven realized that if they fed each other, everyone could enjoy the feast.
Similarly, our world has the potential to be heaven or hell. The table is set for us all with incredible bounty, and there is plenty to go around. But we will never be able to truly enjoy the feast if we are unable or willing to feed one another. When we can recognize that there are plenty of blessings to go around, and when we can see each other as equally worthy of blessings, we can make heaven on earth.
“Have you but one blessing?” Esau’s painful question from our parashah echoes still. Too many in our time are still denied the blessings others of us so readily enjoy, and all of us are the worse for it. May we see what Isaac did not. May we see that blessings are not a finite resource, and may we rededicate ourselves to sharing the bounty with each other. May we set aside the zero-sum mentality that has held so many back and has hurt us all. And may we recommit to our sacred charge of making heaven on earth.