“Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was greatly distressed” (Genesis 32:8).
Who cannot relate to that these days? A deeply divided nation; the threat of climate change; crisis at our southern border; the erosion of safety on subway platforms, public parks, kosher markets. Fear and distress hover above us with an eerie ominousness that can be destabilizing or paralyzing. We have a propensity to flee, to escape—into our work, into our lives, into our phones and devices. Or, perhaps we choose to confront and do battle.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Biblical Jacob readies himself to see his brother Esau, whom years earlier he had cheated out of their father’s birthright and blessing for the first-born son. These twin brothers, born into the world seconds apart of the same mother, are separated by a lifetime of choices which created a river of muddied waters between them.
But now, in the desert wilderness, each on his journey as a man, a husband, a father, they are to confront one another again as brothers. Years of silence and anger and disappointment, a yawning canyon between them.
“Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was greatly distressed.” He didn’t know if he was going to wage war with Esau and his tribes or if he was going to embrace, reconcile, and love.
“Rabbi Judah bar Rabbi Ilai asked, ‘Are not fear and distress identical? The meaning however is that he was afraid lest he be slain ‘and was distressed’ lest he should slay. For he thought, If Esau proves stronger than I, he might slay me, and if I prove stronger than he, I might slay him.’”
Let us not be seduced into thinking that this is a zero-sum game. It is not “kill or be killed.” Rather, Torah and its interpreters are demanding of us an exercise in conscience, a test, not unlike those given to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, to scour his heart, mind and soul for the mettle of his being. He faces not only the possibility of his own death but equally grave, the reality that he has it in his hands to take another’s life.“
And now it’s night
But I’ve seen our silhouette fade
And weaken to grey
We used to be sharp against the light
Our empathy weaponized
Our history bleaching out during the day.
What you’re after, what you’re after
So sings Mac McCaughan in Superchunk’s most recent album, What a Time to Be Alive, a phrase I have heard uttered as often as “hello” and “goodbye” these days. What a time to be alive. For it is not only the radical digitization of the human experience that eases into our DNA the facility of deletion or erasure; it’s the fear and distress running roughshod over the ineffable, the ephemeral, the elusive but no less real qualities of what makes us human. “We used to be sharp against the light,” but now we are lost in the uniform glow of phones oozing blue light to faces lost in thought and distance from one neighbor to another.
Or, we are inflamed by the burning blue fires of hate, refugee parents having to make fateful and irreversible decisions about children at Central American and Mexican borders while life and death, freedom and prison, bear down. We are vigilant on subway platforms with broken hearts for Shamari Anderson; in public parks near pristine campus walkways in mourning for Tessa Majors; we practice lockdowns in our children’s schools and we are vulnerable in a kosher market, where we shop to feed our families, to sustain and live our lives.
Did you read about Douglas Miguel Rodriguez? This noble Ecuadorian immigrant to Jersey City, who worked closely with JC Kosher Market owner Leah Mindel Ferencz and was killed alongside Ferencz and Moshe Deutsch, a Brooklyn rabbinical student. Rodriguez died while actually saving another’s life. According to the Daily News, as Moshe Deutsch lay dying, Rodriguez moved Deutsch’s cousin Chaim toward the backdoor of the market, held it open so Chaim could escape, and in the melee, Rodriguez was shot and killed. “Is there any more proof that things happen for a reason?” was the way Leah Ferencz’s brother-in-law responded and I have been mulling his words all week.
What is the reason we give for why these heinous events happen? What is the meaning we create from the unerasable mark they leave on our lives?
Douglas Miguel Rodriguez stared death in the face and chose, in the moment, to save a life. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, if you and your offspring would live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Neither great fear nor great distress but life, the choice of life: this is the reason, the indelible mark, the seal of fate and meaning of what it means, every day, to choose.
The Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas once said that the most important commandment, the first law of ethics for the human project is God’s commandment “thou shalt not kill.” Levinas, a Holocaust survivor, believed that since God created the human being in the Divine Image, then to look into another person’s eyes was to see the face of God and that the commandment not to kill would forever be rooted in the radical notion that to kill another is to kill God. And I believe this ethic is foundational to understanding Jacob’s moment, hours before confronting his brother for the first time in years. He is saddled with fear and distress; he is laden with guilt and gifts of appeasement. He has created every imaginable protection for his family at the border between the past and the future so that he and his brother may finally settle matters and determine a way forward. Fear and distress, however, presumes a false dichotomy. For when Jacob and Esau meet, a third path emerged. “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, and falling on his neck, he kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).
Who did they see at that moment? Each other? Themselves? Their parents? The Face of God?
This is our test, to rise above our fear and distress and insist upon seeing ourselves in others and others in ourselves; choosing life, not death; living not with despair but with hope.
Rabbi Akiva said that hope, tikvah, was like the waters of the mikvah: it allows us to renew and begin again.
Division is a false dichotomy. It’s more life and hope that we need to always be choosing, one moment at a time.