Frightened & Terrified: A D’var Torah on Parashat Vayeshev

We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you…” Jacob was greatly frightened; in his terror, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape…..Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.” (Gen. 32:7-12)

 The medieval commentator, Rashi, citing a midrash, points to a problem here. For Rashi, and generations of scholars before and after him, the Tanakh, (Bible) is read with the premise that lashon yetarah, a situation that presents the reader with what appears to be repetitive speech, requires careful reading and interpretation. The key thing for these interpreters is that the language of the Torah appears to be redundant. But, because Torah, unlike, parents, coaches, teachers, supervisors and clergy members, never engages in repetitive speech. Torah has no “broken record player” problem. It just looks that way sometimes. And, according to traditional commentators, when this happens, it is our obligation to ask the question why. What is Torah telling us with this seeming redundancy? We have to adjust our understanding of the text to find Torah’s meaning.

In this particular case, in Parashat Vayeshev, it might seem on the surface that Torah is engaging in repetitive speech. Why would Genesis tell us that Jacob is frightened and terrified when only one of these words would suffice? Since there is no such thing as repetitive speech, there must be a better reason. Beresheit Rabba, Midrashim on Genesis, tells us that Jacob was afraid that he would be killed and anxious, terrified, that he might kill others.

Our sages tightropeunderscore an important point here, one with tremendous relevance to our times. Fear of what others might do leads to one set of feelings and behaviors. Fear of what we might do leads to another, and neither form of fear is constructive or destructive until we act on it. Fear of the other is natural, understandable, and it does not necessarily demonstrate hate, or ill will. In the absence of complete knowledge and engagement, a degree of concern about the known or unknown other may very well be appropriate. With the memory of his last interactions with Esau on his mind, Jacob has reasons to be on guard, attentive to the possibility of trouble. Yet, Jacob’s feelings and actions also demonstrate the danger of fear and suspicion. What evidence is there to assume that Esau wants to hurt Jacob? In all the years that Jacob has been away from Cannan, has Esau ever sought revenge, sent out mercenaries to retrieve his stolen inheritance, taken a trip to uncle Laban’s place to inquire as to whether or not Jacob has sought refuge there? Emotions, especially fear and anxiety, are complicated things. Our emotional radar is a gift, an essential part of who we are, it is not to be taken lightly nor condescendingly dismissed. And yet, we must also be somewhat fearful of our own fears. Notice that Jacob’s fears are two-fold. The fear that Esau may harm him and the fear that he may harm Esau. Neither scenario is good.

Today, we Americans face a similar predicament. We cannot deny the fact that there are people out there who wish us harm, who want us to suffer and who are ready to take huge risks and make great sacrifices with their own lives to achieve their goals. Evil is part and parcel of reality. It is not a figment of our imagination. The fearful among us are not insane. It is easy to understand how people are concerned that admitting people into our nation today only to perpetrate violence against us tomorrow would be a terrible mistake to have on one’s conscience. There is nothing shameful in viewing our national communal, and personal decisions as a profound responsibility that is goes hand-in-hand with our obligation to protect ourselves and those we love. Feeling afraid, expressing concern, and pointing out risks does not make someone a bad person or a bigot. The freedom to express reservations about doing a noble thing is essential to democracy. Silencing critics concerns about doing what we may truly believe is an ethical and moral imperative is an unethical act. Calling people names, mocking their fears, and shaming them for their views is not only mean, it is also foolish. Rabbi Amy Eilberg applies a basic tenant of couples counselling to peace making. “You’re not going to change anybody’s mind by calling them, sick, evil or stupid.” Another way of saying it is, “calling someone stupid is a stupid thing to do.” Assuming that our goal is to win over those who are hesitant about admitting more refugees, how can we do this in a way that takes their concerns seriously? The answer is that we must advocate rather than agitate. Advocating assumes that those who disagree with us have not lost their minds, but are struggling to find a missing piece of the puzzle.

Was Jacob evil, wicked, or sinful to fear his brother’s intentions? No. Are people evil for being concerned about admitting refugees? No. These concerns become untenable when they are acted on without a full assessment of the potential harms that might be inflicted on all sides. Acting on these concerns, the fears and terrors, only becomes evil when the detractors of accepting refugees make blanket generalizations about the kind of person someone is based on the country they come from, or the religion they practice. Such fears only become evil when one selectively cites all the harms that foreigners have done, while conveniently refusing to acknowledge all the good things, they’ve contributed. This anxiety and terror becomes evil when someone asserts that the pain caused by a fellow human being is rooted in and reflects upon their race, religion or country of origin. Being fearful is not evil in and of itself until or unless we allow or fear to rationalize, or intellectualize material actions that punish other people for encountering circumstances entirely beyond their control.

It would have been evil had Jacob decided to kill Esau preemptively, based on his fears, before Esau had the chance to face him, and perhaps even kill him. It would have been evil to assume that the descendants of Esau were inherently wicked because they were his descendants. Had Esau and his dependents become poor, infirmed, hungry and helpless, weary and weakened stragglers seeking refuge from the world around him, it would have been evil to refuse him food and shelter for fear of what he might do. It also would have been foolish of Jacob—had he acted on his fear what Esau might do to him—to run away, missing the opportunity to be reunited and make peace with his brother.

We should be afraid of what others might do to us, but we should be equally afraid of what we might do to them. We might end up being complacent and complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. In our fear, we may be the reason that people are forced to live even longer in refugee camps that could easily become far more fertile ground for recruiting extremists than if they were to have found new homes in the United States. Our actions might result in enriching and empowering smugglers, warlords and dictators who continue benefit from the status quo, endangering innocent people by subjecting them to a vice grip between the whims and fancies of brutal tyrants on the one hand and passive by standers on the other.

Whether terrorism, extremism, and brutality are inflicted upon us by the foreigner or the native born is not the essential question here. Both are capable of it. As we have seen all too often in these recent days. Anyone can commit an evil act. If fighting terrorism is our goal, then we need to root out the forces that contribute to it. Refusing to do our share in this crisis will only contribute to the ills that help terror and extremism prosper.

Is there a chance that in welcoming the other we may be hurt, that we may experience some additional hardships? Certainly. But it is a chance that is mitigated by careful screening, social inclusion, access to education and economic opportunity. It’s harder to hate America when it’s the country that saves your life, provides you with freedom and enriches your future. Moreover, if we do not welcome the refugee, then we need to fear what we are becoming; what is the moral cost of guarding our fears in the hopes of self-protection?

In its use of two words to describe Jacob’s emotional state, Torah reminds us that we must balance our fears for ourselves with our fears of ourselves, our fears of others with an awareness of the fears they have of us. As things turned out, neither of Jacob’s fears were realized. He didn’t slay Esau, nor was he slain by him. Instead the brothers reunited and embraced in peace and forgiveness. Refusing to be paralyzed by his fears, he sends gifts ahead and goes to meet his estranged brother, he “bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:3-4) Despite all his flaws and limitations, Jacob teaches us that it is only through wrestling with our conscience, encountering our brothers, and confronting our fears that we can experience any real, lasting and comforting peace.

May we, in our own way, wrestle with what scares us, reach out for those who need us, even fear us, and confront the crises that challenge us, frightened and terrified though we may be, and let us say: Amen.

Delivered at Temple Adath Israel • Lexington, KY

November 27, 2015 • 15 Kislev, 5776