This weeks Torah Portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) contains the story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau. In Genesis 32:8 we read: “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.”
Many Rabbi’s have asked why the Tanakh repeats the verb here. Many of them go on to argue that Jacob’s being afraid, was because of his fear of the consequences of Esau and his men coming and attacking him. They then suggest that Jacob’s distress was over the moral issue that if he killed Esau or one of his men in self-defense, he would still be greatly distressed at the death of a man created in the image of God.
This brought to mind the tragic life of my PNG brother, Gus.
Gus was living in a secure complex in Port Moresby some years ago and had got up early around dawn, one morning to take his wife and children to the airport. He had some security downstairs, but he heard two of the ‘rascals’ climbing over the balcony to enter upstairs where he and his family were. They would most likely have killed them in the process of stealing their possessions.
Gus a giant of a man both physically and spiritually, went out on to the balcony and fought with them. In the process he ended up knocking one of the men over the balcony and the man died.
When I next met up with Gus after this tragic event and some time had passed, Gus was still struggling with the reality that he had killed another human being. Even though he had, in all likelihood saved his wife and beautiful young children, he still found it difficult to live with. He may have been ‘morally right’ but that did not make his involvement in the tragic loss of a man’s life easy to bear.
Gus went on to do an incredible job of raising his daughter and three sons and then before he had reached the age of 40, with his eldest girl, Yuana still only around 16, Gus had a heart-attack at work and died.
Receiving the news of his untimely passing was one of the most upsetting days of my life. The sun shines less brightly without the great impact of this man of God who was cherished by so many.
Rabbi Sacks writes a great article on this Torah Portion and this moral issue. In it he relates the mixed feelings that the Israeli soldiers had after the great victory of 1967 and quotes Yitzhak Rabin, the Chief of Staff during the war.
“We find more and more a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is incomplete, and more than a small portion of sorrow and shock prevails in their festivities, and there are those who abstain from celebration. The warriors in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory but the price of victory: their comrades who fell beside them bleeding, and I know that even the terrible price which our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men. It may be that the Jewish people has never learned or accustomed itself to feel the triumph of conquest and victory, and therefore we receive it with mixed feelings.”
Sacks goes on to state: “A people capable of feeling distress, even in victory, is one that knows the tragic complexity of the moral life. Sometimes it is not enough to make the right choice. One must also fight to create a world in which such choices do not arise because we have sought and found non-violent ways of resolving conflict.”
What very wise words, but what a huge challenge, that today, after the UN vote to recognize the ‘State of Palestine’, seems even more challenging and further from resolution.
I recommend reading the whole of Rabbi Sack’s article on Aish – http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/180748221.html
For some insightful commentary on the UN vote I recommend these articles:
‘Into the Fray: Israel’s infuriating impotence’ By Martin Sherman
‘Accomplices in a campaign to annihilate a UN member’ By Shlomo Slonim
and ‘I Stand Ashamed that My Country Voted for the New Nazis’ by Giulio Meotti