Friday, March 24, 2023

This week’s portion, Vayishlach, contains a fascinating detail, hidden in the larger than life story of Ya’akov’s encounter with Eisav.

The Torah tells us:

“Vayira Ya’akov me’od, vayeitzer lo.”

“…Ya’akov was very afraid and he was distressed.” (Bereishit 32:8)

The Torah doesn’t waste words, so the question is: what is the difference between Ya’akov’s fear and distress?

Rashi (quoting the Midrash Tanchuma) suggests that he was afraid in his upcoming battle with Eisav, he might be killed, and he was distressed lest he be forced to kill others. One might think that Ya’akov was a more passive individual, afraid of violence. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that he is not averse to violence if need be.

The Siftei Chachamim (Rav Shabsai Bass; Amsterdam 1680) posits that Ya’akov was afraid he or his men might accidentally kill innocent bystanders, or Eisav’s men who might not need to be killed. Referencing the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a; and see Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, 421:13) he points out that even when saving the life of someone being pursued by a rodef (someone intent on taking revenge for his accidentally killed relative), if one can stop the pursuer by maiming him, one is actually not allowed to kill him and would be liable to capital punishment!

What is fascinating about this question, is that technically, since Ya’akov was afraid Eisav was coming to kill him, Judaism is clear (Sanhedrin 72a) that “When someone is coming to kill you, you can kill him first,” and yet Ya’akov is still trying to avoid unnecessary force!

It follows that the dilemma here is not strategic, nor is it merely fear and anxiety; Rather, Ya’akov is struggling with an ethical dilemma. And even if legally (halachically) one might be “covered” in killing the enemy, Ya’akov is looking for the moral high ground.

There are two principles at play here: self-defense on the one hand—meaning one actually has a responsibility to protect oneself (and in this case, one’s loved ones), which might mean killing someone (Eisav, and perhaps some or all of his men…)—and “Thou shalt not murder” on the other, expressing the inviolate sanctity of human life and the imperative not to take another person’s life. But to uphold this principle, and as a pacifist refuse to kill, would mean violating the principle of the sanctity of one’s own life.

While Judaism and the Torah will tell us what choice to make in such circumstances, perhaps Ya’akov is teaching us that we should at least struggle with the decision. I have vivid memories of the hours we spent in the officer’s course considering the dilemma of facing “RPG kids” and the like (7- and 8-year-olds trained by the PLO to fire anti-tank missiles). And I recall the base commander himself (Sha’ul Mofaz, who would later become the IDF chief of staff) sitting with us late into the night until every cadet agreed in principle that, faced with such a horrible scenario, and assuming no other choice, the correct thing to do was to fire on the child to protect and save one’s men. And intellectually, until this day I have no problem justifying such actions. But that does not mean it should come easy. In fact, if a soldier forced to act in such circumstances does not struggle, something is seriously wrong.

We as Jews, are meant to struggle, not only with what is right, but every bit as much with the impact of what that right course of action might mean.

Rabbi Binny Freedman is Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Orayta. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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