Fear, in Jacob's day and in our own: Comments on Parashat Vayishlach and the Rittenhouse verdict
This is adapted from my sermon on November 20, 2021 at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, referencing the Rittenhouse verdict:
About 30 years ago, the award-winning Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote this children’s book, איתמר פוגש ארנב - “Itamar meets a rabbit.”
It’s a story about a boy named Itamar who loves animals of all kinds, except that he is terrified of rabbits. He is so scared of rabbits that he refuses to even look at a picture of a rabbit in a book. He is so scared of rabbits that when he goes to the zoo, he makes his parents warn him when they are approaching the rabbit cage so he can close his eyes. As a result, the only ‘rabbits’ he has ever seen are in his imagination. They are huge and ferocious and they eat children, and they even have teeth on their tails.
Until one day, Itamar is in the forest and sees an adorable little creature that he has never seen before, and he strikes up a conversation with this animal, at which time he learns two surprising facts. (a) He is speaking with a rabbit, and rabbits are small and cute and nothing like the rabbits in his imagination. (b) When the rabbit finds out that Itamar is a child, the rabbit is terrified because he believes that children are ferocious huge creatures that eat rabbits -- and they even have teeth on their tails.
Clearly the story is an allegory. Itamar and the rabbit fear what they do not know. Their fears fester when they are separated from reality. And when they meet each other, they realize that these fears are unfounded. But we could imagine an alternate reality in which they meet each other each with their guard up, each terrified, and the beautiful meeting that we read about could have been tragically different.
The central story of the Torah portion of Vayishlach may have some parallels with the story of Itamar and the rabbit. Our main character today is Jacob, and he wants to return home after decades of living away from home, but he knows that he cannot return home without in some way confronting his relationship with his estranged brother Esau. He knows Esav is angry at him - and justifiably, because Jacob committed identity fraud against him 21 years earlier.Jacob sends messengers to Esau offering a reconciliation - but he then learns that Esau is approaching him with 400 armed men. We read -- ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו -- Jacob is terrified and distressed.
Later that night, Jacob has a famous nighttime wrestling encounter with an angel, who gives him the new name “Israel” - “The one who wrestles with God.” Contemporary commentators often explain this nighttime wrestling story as a manifestation of Jacob’s anxiety as he contemplates the confrontation with his brother. And in fact there is one medieval commentator, Rashbam, who says that the function of the angel is simply -- given Jacob’s extreme fear -- to keep Jacob from running away as he has done so frequently in earlier chapters of his story.
But other interpretations suggest that Jacob is so afraid, but he is also ready to use force if necessary. According to the Rashi, the Torah is apparently redundant in saying ויירא יעקב מאד - Jacob was terrified -- and ויצר לו - and he was also distressed -- because these are actually two different things that Jacob was feeling. “Jacob was terrified” lest he be killed, and he was also “distressed” lest he be forced to kill others in self-defense, something he was absolutely prepared to do even if he would find it to be troubling.
In this posture of fear and guardedness, Jacob resembles many of us when we approach situations that are unfamiliar or that we expect to be conflicted. When we are afraid, we may operate on a hair trigger - not necessarily with a weapon, but with whatever response is available to us, including harsh or angry words and vindictive actions.
And maybe this is a story of mutual fear. Why would Esau have come after Jacob with 400 armed men, more than 20 years after his last encounter with his brother? It could be that Esau is still angry, or vindictive, or just wants to pursue fairness and feels that he has been unfairly treated. Or could it also be that Esau regards Jacob with some kind of fear, knowing that Jacob has a history of taking advantage of him, and that somehow Esau always emerges from their interactions at a severe disadvantage. Jacob is scared and is ready to kill if necessary - and so is Esau. Actually, they both had good reason to be afraid of each other.
Seen in this light, it is a heroic action of both of them to defuse the situation at least enough so they can embrace and exchange best wishes to each other before they proceed on their way. You can easily imagine an alternate tragic ending to this story where one or both of them ends up dead, even if that was not their intention.
Obviously fear is an emotion whose purpose is to keep us safe - to make sure we are aware of threats and dangers and protect ourselves from them. But an overabundance of fear distorts our perception of the world, making us see everything as a threat. One of the terrifying curses in the Book of Leviticus is וְרָדַ֣ף אֹתָ֗ם ק֚וֹל עָלֶ֣ה נִדָּ֔ף You will be pursued by the sound of blowing leaves. The sound of leaves will make you scared that someone’s chasing you even though no one is chasing you.
If you assume that everything in the world is threatening, you’re likely to be involved in more conflict. And if you assume that everything in the world is threatening, and you are heavily armed, you may be more likely to stumble into conflict, even deadly conflict. Picture, for example, someone with an overabundance of fear, who is also heavily armed. Speaking theoretically, suppose you’re picturing someone who is age 17 and brings a semi-automatic rifle into a politically charged situation, a rifle that it is not legal for him to purchase or own, and he feels that an unarmed emotionally disturbed man is a threat to him, and shoots and kills him, and then shoots and kills and maims the people who are trying to disarm him -- as after all, he is an active shooter.
A jury in Wisconsin issued a verdict yesterday that the shooter in such a case was acting in self defense - even though it’s abundantly clear from the descriptions of the event that no one’s life would have been in danger in these interactions had this 17-year-old not been openly armed. His claim of self defense requiring lethal force was based on his perception that people were trying to grab his gun -- which actually is not a bad thing to do if you are confronting an active shooter.
If the net effect of this verdict is to encourage more people to bring more weapons to demonstrations, it’s hard to imagine how that helps our world to be safer. It just introduces more opportunities for people to stumble into disastrous conflict because their fear response takes over.
How many other situations in our world might we see as situations of mutual fear, like Esau and Jacob? This does not have to mean that the two sides are equally at fault. And obviously our world includes many genuine dangers from which we must protect ourselves. But this story, like the children’s story of Itamar, does highlight that having our guard up does not always make our world safer. Sometimes fear makes our world more dangerous. And sometimes the way to make our world safer is to encounter the other directly — and to verify that, regardless of what we have imagined, the other does not actually have teeth on their tail.