Confront horror by asking ‘why?’

  • RabbiEmmaGottlieb
In Parashat Vayishlach, we find Jacob fearing for himself and his family as he prepares to confront his brother Esau for the first time since stealing his birthright so many years before.
by Rabbi Emma Gottlieb, Cape Town Progressive Congregation | Nov 22, 2018

At the time, Esau was so angry, he threatened to kill Jacob. Understandably, even though decades have passed and they are both now married men with children and grandchildren of their own, Jacob is unsure how Esau will receive him. The news that Esau has come to greet Jacob with a large “retinue” does not help matters, and Jacob decides to send his family back across the river, at a safe distance, until he is sure whether or not Esau’s retinue is a welcoming party or a military force.

Alone, Jacob then settles down for the night. This is when he has his famous encounter, wrestling with “a man” (we know not who) throughout the night. Much has been written over the ages about the nature of this “other” whom Jacob wrestles. It is a divine messenger? Esau? Is Jacob struggling with himself?

One passage of Talmud (Chulin 91a) uses this encounter, rather, to issue a warning: from here it is derived that a Torah scholar should not go out alone at night.

It is often easier when something unpleasant happens to focus on the tachlis (nuts and bolts) of how to prevent it from happening again, or happening to someone else, instead of focusing on why it happened in the first place, facing the more wide-scale challenges that might need to be addressed in order to ensure a long-term solution.

In the wake of the horrific shooting in Pittsburgh, we see both of these conversations happening throughout the Jewish world – some focusing on security measures in our Jewish synagogues and institutions, and others focusing on the broader concern of how to understand and combat anti-Semitism. Of course, both conversations are necessary.

At the same time, it is important to make sure that our answer isn’t just to batten down the hatches and stay indoors. Although Jacob’s struggle leaves him injured, it also leaves him blessed. Dr Avivah Gottlieb-Zornberg writes that, “In order to overcome debilitating anxiety, Jacob must expose himself to fear, to encounter what he most dreads. He must confront the nameless horror of the man who grips him, of that which binds him arm and leg, if he is to acquire the partial freedom of a limping-hero who has learned his new name – and, incidentally, the mirror identity of the face of his dread.”

Jacob goes to sleep a fearful man and wakes up renewed, with confidence. Though his new name indicates his struggles are far from over, he is now ready to face them head on. And, when he goes out and faces Esau, he finds himself not threatened, but embraced.

We, too, must find the confidence to go forward unafraid. This is not the time to hide away indoors. This is the time to walk boldly forward, to reach out, build bridges, and work to repair the ages-long damage between us and our long-lost brothers and sisters.

Am Yisrael Chai. The People of Israel, the people whose struggle is a part of their very name, will not just survive – we will LIVE.

Kein Yehi Ratzon!


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