December 2012, Rosh Chodesh, the Kotel. It’s the moment the policewoman pulls me aside because I am wearing my tallis. I say to her, “This must be incredibly hard for you to do.” (She looks back at me puzzled). Many hours later, after being interrogated and finally released from the Old City police station, concerned friends ask, “Were you afraid?” I was not. Since then, I’ve thought a good deal about what makes me afraid – and what does not.
October 27, 2017, Shabbat, Pittsburgh. American Jews are shocked by the catastrophic murders. Perhaps European Jews are not so surprised by this openly anti-Semitic action. For Jews globally, however, it is impossible not to reflect once again on the dangers that face us simply for being Jews. What happens next? Does the gulf between us and others deepen? Or could this be an opportunity to draw others closer?
Vayishlach is about how Jacob prevails against fear. Jacob’s wrestles with the angel, has an epiphany, and then meets up with Esau. Esau, in turn, learning that Jacob is entering his territory, sends 400 men! Jacob recalls Esau’s last words before their precipitous parting: “Wait until our father dies, and I will kill you.” Of course, Jacob is afraid. But is he mortally afraid?
Two Hebrew words depict fear. The first is pachad, mortal fear. The second is yir’ah, spiritual fear, or better, awe. The body is afraid when threatened; a fearful body disdains awe. But if one has awe, one need not be afraid. We learn this from Ghandi’s teaching on non-violent civil disobedience; we learn this from Akiva, whose dying words under Roman torture are the Shema and V’ahavta, that we are one with God and God is found through love.
Is Jacob mortally afraid? Clearly not: he sends his wives, children and servants ahead; then he approaches Esau carefully, bowing seven times as he draws near.
The surprise in the parsha isn’t what Jacob does. The nechemta, the real comfort and inspiration comes from how Esau responds.
Our sages hate Esau. He is the paradigmatic enemy, the twin who resents not being chosen. Jacob receives all the admiration; guided by his mother Rebecca (who herself is guided by God), he acquires the birthright and blessing.
Yet Jacob behaves with manipulation and deceit. Indeed, Yaakov, Jacob’s Hebrew name, has at its root this very word, deceive. God even directs Jacob to change his name to Yisrael, one who strives to be holier!
Need we hate Esau to love Jacob? Esau is successful and well-established. He is warranted in being wary of Jacob! Perhaps the 400 men he sends towards Jacob are a warning –don’t attempt to take more from me! But he (and the reader) witness Jacob demonstrating vulnerability. “Here is my family; here are my servants. I trust you not to harm them.”
When Esau understands Jacob’s intention, he races to greet him – and kisses him! The Torah word for kisses has diacritical dots above each letter. The sages interpret these dots through the lens of their disdain for Esau, making a play on the Hebrew to translate it as “Esau bit him.” Perhaps instead, the many dots suggest that Esau showered his brother with kisses, so overjoyed was this man of simple tastes to be with his twin brother again.
Kisses and then reconciliation. Jacob urges Esau to accept gifts from him, and Esau responds, “I have all that I need.” Jacob looks into the eyes of his long-lost brother and softly proclaims, “To see your face is to see the face of God.”
This is the moment when Jacob becomes more. He has moved from his mortal fear “pachad” into awe, yir’ah. To live in awe rather than in fear enables one to see the other b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
When did any of us last look upon someone we fear and think, “To see you face is to see the face of God”?
Consider Jeff Cohen: when the Pittsburgh shooter was shot by police and taken to Allegheny General Hospital, he was tended to by a medical team headed by Mr. Cohen, President of the Hospital and Tree of Life synagogue member. “My job isn’t to judge him. That’s a pretty awesome responsibility. My job is to take care of him… Many of the people that attended to him were Jewish and they’re heroes …They went and they confronted the problem, and they were true to their core beliefs and I’m very proud of them.”
There are people who do wicked deeds, who maim and murder. They should be known for who they are, and unless one is skilled in managing them, they should not be trusted.
But most people are not wicked. Is this not the theme of Yom Kippur – that all people err and can evolve, and only some are irascible?
I love Jacob because he mirrors my deep dream to grow spiritually. He teaches me that though I may lean towards fear, I will do better being in awe, trying to look into the eyes and soul of the person who irritates the heck out of me. Sometimes it can be heartbreaking – to see deeply into another makes me be open to that person’s pain; and often, I, of course, think my pain suffices!
One doesn’t make peace with a friend but with an enemy. This is a hallmark of Progressive Judaism, to make love.
Like Jeff Cohen, I have learned that it is in the service of others that I will find my true role and perhaps even redemption. When I drew close to the Kotel in my tallis, it was as much for all other kindred women as for myself. “Please,” said Jacob to Esau, “Accept my gift.”
Fear feeds fear. Fear is unbounded. Love feeds love. Love is unbounded.
Will we hate our twin Esau? Or try to see through him the face of God?
Choose to see the face of God. Perhaps that’s the essence of being a Jew.
In the end, I know that I’ll be looking back upon myself…
About the author:
Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman is Rabbi Emerita of The Barnert Temple, the oldest synagogue in New Jersey, USA, dating back to 1847. She is the editor of Mishkan T’filah and currently serves on the Board of the American Jewish World Service.