Sublimation and Seeing Red
by Miri Korbman
In this week’s Parsha, we are introduced to one of the most famous sets of twins in world history, Eisav and Yaakov. The Pasuk (25:25) describes Eisav in vivid detail as an “admoni… Kulo k’aderes se’ar,” red and hairy. Rashi notes that Eisav’s appearance is not just a red herring (pun intended); rather, this is both a physical description as well as an implication about Eisav’s character.
Rashi says that Admoni, red, is an indicator that he would be a spiller of blood. Indeed, the Pasuk (25:27) then tells us that when Eisav and Yaakov grew up, Eisav became a hunter. Many of us grew up with this image of Eisav - a hairy, redheaded, violent man with a ruddy complexion, greedily consuming Yaakov’s equally red lentil soup later in this same Parsha (25:30). As a redhead with redheaded siblings, nieces, and nephews, I was always just a bit troubled by this description of Eisav and the emphasis on redness throughout the pesukim. Could it be that one’s complexion, one’s coloring, even from birth, can be such a definitive predictor of one’s character and personality?
There is much to say on the topic of redheads and personality traits. The widely accepted stereotype is that of a fiery, hotheaded, spirited, passionate nature, and while we all certainly know a redhead who is kind, calm, and sweet, many of us likely also know redheads who perfectly fit this label. There is even research to show that this stereotype and associated bias really exists: sociological studies show that information about people’s hair color influences others’ perception of them (e.g. “dumb blonde” and “fiery redhead”).
Even more astoundingly, the Torah itself seems to buy into this stereotype, and Parshas Toldos is not the only place in the Torah where redheads are associated with blood, aggression, and passion. Dovid HaMelech is another of the most famous redheads in Torah, and perhaps history. The Pasuk in Sefer Shmuel I (16:12) also describes King David as an “Admoni!” The Torah does not often go to great lengths to describe the physical appearances of biblical personalities. What then can we learn from this distinct similarity between Dovid and Eisav and the Torah’s purposeful report of this detail?
I was privileged to learn the following idea in high school from Rebbetzin Peshi Neuberger, and it is a concept that has its roots in psychology and implications for all of us – even non-red-heads – in our daily lives.
Eisav and Dovid HaMelech are both described as admoni, red, and indeed both of them possessed similar raw material, similar character traits that, depending on how they were shaped, honed, and channeled, could indeed manifest similarly, as well. But they did not. Both Dovid and Eisav were born with a fiery, passionate, strong-willed nature that could have resulted in aggression and violence. But Eisav became both a hunter of prey as well as a murderer, while Dovid HaMelech channeled this same bloodlust into his wars against the nations oppressing the Jews in Eretz Canaan and eventually was victorious enough to conquer Yerushalayim as his capital and pave the way for Shlomo HaMelech to be respected as a world leader. Of course, Dovid is held accountable for the blood on his hands and is forbidden from building the Beis HaMikdash himself; Dovid does not, however, become a hunter and evildoer.
This is a manifestation of the concept of sublimation. Originally discussed by Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theory, sublimation is a defense mechanism by which we take intolerable or unacceptable urges, such as bloodlust, and channel it into something that is more acceptable, to use it for the good. For example, one might become a doctor, surgeon, Shochet, or Mohel, and effectively channel that “dangerous” or unacceptable urge into something productive, effective, even praiseworthy.
Thus, the key difference between Eisav and Dovid is not in their complexion, coloring, or perhaps even in their innate character; rather, it is in how they each channeled that nature, and how they used their personality traits within the world.
Similarly, each of us is born with inherent Midos. Rav Shlomo Wolbe explains in Alei Shur that these midos are part and parcel of who we are, and more often than not, it is not within our realm of ability to actually rid ourselves of a Midah, nor is it advisable to do so. Rather, the goal of developing positive, pro-social character traits and working on oneself is to identify one’s core midos, the traits and characteristics and motivating factors that are integral parts of one’s personality and identity, and to shape, mold, and channel those traits to be used to achieve personal goals in line with one’s moral and spiritual values.
While the classical Freudian understanding of sublimation is that it is an unconscious process by which we choose professions, relationships, and interactions that allow us to channel those “dangerous” urges in safe, effective, pro-social ways, this process can also become conscious if we stop and consider our own personalities and tendencies. This week, consider a trait or aspect of your personality that feels strongly tied to who you are, an innate characteristic that seems to define much of your thoughts, feelings, deeds, and values. Reflect on how this trait might be manifesting in ineffective or damaging ways in your life, and see if you can come up with some ways to channel that Midah for the good. And, while you’re at it, give the redheads in your life some extra love – they might just need it this week!