Vayishlach - 18th Kislev 5767
Jacob and Esau are about to meet again after a separation of twenty two years. It is a fraught encounter. Once, Esau had sworn to kill Jacob in revenge for what he saw as the theft of his blessing. Will he do so now – or has time healed the wound? Jacob sends messengers to let his brother know he is coming. They return, saying that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with a force of four hundred men. We then read:
Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. (32: 8)
The question is obvious. Jacob is in the grip of strong emotions. But why the duplication of verbs? What is the difference between fear and distress? To this a midrash gives a profound answer:
Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said: Are not fear and distress identical? The meaning, however, is that “he was afraid” that he might be killed. “He was distressed” that he might kill. For Jacob thought: If he prevails against me, will he not kill me; while if I prevail against him, will I not kill him? That is the meaning of “he was afraid” – lest he should be killed; “and distressed” – lest he should kill.
The difference between being afraid and distressed, according to the midrash, is that the first is a physical anxiety; the second a moral one. It is one thing to fear one’s own death, quite another to contemplate being the cause of someone else’s. However, a further question now arises. Surely self-defence is permitted in Jewish law? If Esau were to try to kill Jacob, Jacob would be justified in fighting back, if necessary at the cost of Esau’s life. Why then should this possibility raise moral qualms? This is the issue addressed by Rabbi Shabbetai Bass, author of the commentary on Rashi, Siftei Chakhamim:
One might argue that Jacob should surely not be distressed about the possibility of killing Esau, for there is an explicit rule: “If someone comes to kill you, forestall it by killing him.” None the less, Jacob did have qualms, fearing that in the course of the fight he might kill some of Esau’s men, who were not themselves intent on killing Jacob but merely on fighting Jacob’s men. And even though Esau’s men were pursuing Jacob’s men, and every person has the right to save the life of the pursued at the cost of the life of the pursuer, none the less there is a condition: “If the pursued could have been saved by maiming a limb of the pursuer, but instead the rescuer killed the pursuer, the rescuer is liable to capital punishment on that account.” Hence Jacob feared that, in the confusion of battle, he might kill some of Esau’s men when he might have restrained them by merely inflicting injury on them.
The principle at stake, according to the Siftei Chakhamim, is the minimum use of force. Jacob was distressed at the possibility that in the heat of conflict he might kill some of the combatants when injury alone might have been all that was necessary to defend the lives of those – including himself – who were under attack.
There is, however, a second possibility, namely that the midrash means what it says, no more, no less: that Jacob was distressed at the possibility of being forced to kill even if that were entirely justified.
At stake is the concept of a moral dilemma. A dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. May we perform an abortion to save the life of the mother? Should we obey a parent when he or she asks us to do something forbidden in Jewish law? May we break Shabbat to extend the life of a terminally ill patient? These questions have answers. There is a right course of action and a wrong one. Two duties conflict and we have meta-halakhic principles to tell us which takes priority. There are some systems in which all moral conflicts are of this kind. There is always a decision procedure and thus a determinate answer to the question, “What shall I do?”
A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer. I ought not to do A (allow myself to be killed); I ought not to do B (kill someone else); but I must do one or the other. To put it more precisely, there may be situations in which doing the right thing is not the end of the matter. The conflict may be inherently tragic. The fact that one principle (self-defence) overrides another (the prohibition against killing) does not mean that, faced with such a choice, I am without qualms. Sometimes being moral means that I experience distress at having to make such a choice. Doing the right thing may mean that I do not feel remorse or guilt, but I still feel regret or grief that I had to do what I did.
A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the moral life. In a conflict between two rights or two wrongs, there may be a proper way to act (the lesser of two evils, or the greater of two goods), but this does not cancel out all emotional pain. A righteous individual may sometimes be one who is capable of distress even when they know they have acted rightly. What the midrash is telling us is that Judaism recognises the existence of dilemmas. Despite the intricacy of Jewish law and its meta-halakhic principles for deciding which of two duties takes priority, we may still be faced with situations in which there is an ineliminable cause for distress. It was Jacob’s greatness that he was capable of moral anxiety even at the prospect of doing something entirely justified, namely defending his life at the cost of his brother’s.
That characteristic – distress at violence and potential bloodshed even when undertaken in self-defence – has stayed with the Jewish people ever since. One of the most remarkable phenomena in modern history was the reaction of Israeli soldiers after the Six Day War in 1967. In the weeks preceding the war, few Jews anywhere in the world were unaware that Israel and its people faced terrifying danger. Troops – Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian – were massing on all its borders. Israel was surrounded by enemies who had sworn to drive its people into the sea. In the event, it won one of the most stunning military victories of all time. The sense of relief was overwhelming, as was the exhilaration at the re-unification of Jerusalem and the fact that Jews could now pray (as they had been unable to do for nineteen years) at the Western Wall. Even the most secular Israelis admitted to feeling intense religious emotion at what they knew was an historic triumph.
Yet, in the months after the war, as conversations took place throughout Israel, it became clear that the mood among those who had taken part in the war was anything but triumphal. It was sombre, reflective, even anguished. That year, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem gave an honorary doctorate to Yitzhak Rabin, Chief of Staff during the war. During his speech of acceptance he said:
“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.”
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.
Faith in Man and G-d
Job is a difficult book because by its very terms it has presented Job, and us, with a question that is unanswerable. Job and his companions search for justice. However, we the readers know what Job and his friends cannot: there is no justice in Jobs sufferings. That is made clear at the beginning. Job is not punished for his sins. Indeed, it was his very righteousness that singled him out in the first place. That, incidentally, is why the sages were correct when they said that, “Job never existed; the story is merely an allegory.” If the events of the book actually happened we would have to conclude, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, that “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.” The book is the testing of a hypothesis: “What would happen if …?”
Job is rarely understood for a simple reason. We read it upside down. Yet the interpretive key has been there from the beginning:
“The day came when the members of the court of heaven places in the prescence of the Lord, and the Accuser was there among them. The Lord asked him where he had been. ‘Ranging over the earth’, he said, ‘from end to end.’ Then the Lord asked the Accuser ‘Have you considered my servant Job? You will find no one like him on earth, a man of blameless and upright life, who fears G-d and sets his face against wrongdoing.’ The accuser answered the Lord, ‘Has not Job good reason to be G-d fearing? Have You not hedged him round on every side with Your protection, him and his family and all his possessions? Whatever he does You have blessed, and his herds have increased beyond measure. But stretch out Your hand and touch all he has, and then he will curse You to your face.’ Then the Lord said to the Accuser, ‘So be it. All that he has is in your hands….’ ” (Job 1: 6-12)
On trial in the book of Job is not job but G-d. the very idea sounds blasphemous. That is why the book has consistently been read against the grain, and why, read thus, it is unintelligible. Why do the righteous suffer? asked Moses, and Jeremiah, and Habakkuk. That is assumed to be the question at the heart of the book of Job, and to it, it offers no answer. How could it comfort the afflicted to be told that bad things happen for no good reason, because the Accuser is tormenting us, because we are innocent and because we have faith?
The question most often asked by theologians and philosophers is: how, given what we know of the world, can we be sure that G-d exists? The question asked in the book of Job (as in later rabbinic midrash) is the opposite: how, given what we know of G-d, can we explain that humankind exists? Why did a wise, good all knowing, all-powerful Creator, having constructed a universe of beauty and order, introduce into it one form of life, Homo sapiens, capable of destroying beauty and creating disorder? This is a surpassingly strange question, yet until we grasp its logic and force we will not understand the proposition at the heart of the book, and of the Jewish vision of humanity’s role in the world.
Consider this: there are two creation narratives in the Pentateuch, the first, G-d’s creation of the universe, the second, the Israelite’s construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness. The space allocated to these processes is utterly disproportionate. The Bible takes a mere 34 verses to describe the making of the universe. It takes between 500 and 600 verses to describe the building of the Tabernacle (Ex 25-40), a small, portable, fragile building. In any other literature, the proportions would be reversed. What has fascinated humankind from the era of myth to the age of science is cosmology: How did the universe come to be? The Bible, having given the most influential account of all time – ‘ In the beginning, G-d created ….’ – reduces it to the barest outlines and rarely (except in Job itself and the ‘creation’ Psalms) returns to it again. There is a fundamental issue at stake. What kind of book is the Bible? What is its most fundamental theme? The question answers itself, and the answer is profoundly counterintuitive. The bible is not humankinds book of G-d; it is G-d’s book of humankind. It takes for granted that G-d can construct a home for humankind. The question that endlessly absorbs it is: can humankind construct a home for G-d?
Wittgenstein once rhetorically asked: What is your aim in philosophy? He replied: to show the fly the way out of the bottle. The fly is trapped in the bottle. It searches for a way out. Repeatedly it bangs its head against the glass until at last, exhausted, it dies. Had it been gifted with the power of reasoning it would have saved itself despair and death. If there is a way in, there is a way out. The one thing the fly forgets to do is to look up. Insight is the ability to see familiar things from an unfamiliar perspective. The way to understand Job is to invert the way it has often been understood. What if the truth at the heart of faith were the opposite of what we take it to be? What if, more significant than our faith in G-d, is G-d’s faith in us?
(from "To Heal a Fractured World" Continuum 2005 Pages 191-193)