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Parashat Vayishlah 5784

Mutual Fear

November 29, 2023
by Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

More than 30 years ago, the award-winning Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote a children’s book, איתמר פוגש ארנב Itamar pogesh arnav, “Itamar meets a rabbit.” It’s a story about a boy named Itamar who loves animals of all kinds, except that he is terrified of rabbits. He is so scared of rabbits that he refuses to even look at a picture of a rabbit in a book. He is so scared of rabbits that when he goes to the zoo, he makes his parents warn him when they are approaching the rabbit cage so he can close his eyes. As a result, the only “rabbits” he has ever seen are in his imagination. They are huge and ferocious and they eat children, and they even have teeth on their tails.

Until one day, Itamar is in the forest and sees an adorable little creature that he has never seen before, and he strikes up a conversation with this animal, at which time he learns two surprising facts: (a) He is speaking with a rabbit, and rabbits are small and cute and nothing like the rabbits in his imagination. (b) When the rabbit finds out that Itamar is a child, the rabbit is terrified because he believes that children are ferocious huge creatures that eat rabbits – and they even have teeth on their tails.

Clearly the story is an allegory. Itamar and the rabbit fear what they do not know. Their fears fester when they are separated from reality. And when they meet each other, they realize that these fears are unfounded. But we could imagine an alternate reality in which they meet each other each with their guard up, each terrified, and the beautiful meeting that we read about could have been tragically different.

The central story of the Torah portion of Vayishlah may have some parallels with the story of Itamar and the rabbit. The Torah portion’s main character is Jacob, and he wants to return home after living elsewhere for two decades, but he knows that he cannot return\without in some way confronting his relationship with his estranged brother Esau. He knows Esau is angry at him – and justifiably, because Jacob committed identity fraud against him 21 years earlier. Jacob sends messengers to Esau offering a reconciliation –but he then learns that Esau is approaching him with 400 armed men. We read: ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו – “Jacob was terrified and distressed.” (Genesis 32:8)

Later that night, Jacob has a famous nighttime wrestling encounter with an angel, who gives him the new name “Israel,” “The one who wrestles with God.” Contemporary commentators often explain this nighttime wrestling story as a manifestation of Jacob’s anxiety as he contemplates the confrontation with his brother. In fact, there is one medieval commentator, Rashbam, who says that the function of the angel is simply, given Jacob’s extreme fear, to keep Jacob from running away as he has done so frequently in earlier chapters of his story.

Other interpretations suggest that Jacob is afraid, but he is also ready to use force if necessary. According to Rashi, whereas the Torah appears to be redundant in saying ויירא יעקב מאד, “Jacob was terrified,” and ויצר לו, “he was distressed,” in fact these are two different things that Jacob was feeling. “Jacob was terrified” lest he be killed, and he was also “distressed” lest he be forced to kill others in self-defense, something he was prepared to do even if he would find it to be troubling. (Rashi to 32:8)

In this posture of fear and guardedness, Jacob resembles many of us when we approach situations that are unfamiliar or that we expect to be conflicted. When we are afraid, we may operate on a hair trigger – not necessarily with a weapon, but with whatever response is available to us, including harsh or angry words and vindictive actions.

And maybe this is a story of mutual fear. Why would Esau have come after Jacob with 400 armed men, more than 20 years after his last encounter with his brother? It could be that Esau is still angry, or vengeful, or just wants to pursue fairness and feels that he has been unfairly treated. Or could it also be that Esau is also fearful of Jacob, knowing that Jacob has a history of taking advantage of him. Jacob is scared and is ready to kill if necessary – and so is Esau. They each have good reasons to be afraid of each other.

Seen in this light, they are both heroic when they manage to defuse the situation at least enough so they can embrace and exchange best wishes to each other before they proceed on their way. (Genesis 33:4ff) We can easily imagine an alternate tragic ending to this story where one or both of the twins ends up dead, even if this is not the intention of either of them.

Obviously, fear is an emotion whose purpose is to keep us safe, to make sure we are aware of threats and dangers and protect ourselves from them. But an overabundance of fear distorts our perception of the world, making us see threats everywhere. One of the terrifying curses in the Book of Leviticus is וְרָדַ֣ף אֹתָ֗ם ק֚וֹל עָלֶ֣ה נִדָּ֔ף – “You will be pursued by the sound of a blowing leaf.” (Leviticus 26:36) The sound of leaves will make you scared that someone is chasing you even though no one is chasing you.

The horrifying events of October 7 in Israel remind us that so much in our world is genuinely fearsome and that we have to respond with vigilance and self-protection. And at the same time, there are numerous stories from Israel since October 7 about partnerships across difference: the numerous medical teams that include Jewish and Arab medical professionals (including, for example, this tragic and heroic story); stories of the heroism of Jews and Arabs coming to each other’s aid (see, for example, this story and this one); stories of Arabs and Jews mourning the losses of October 7 together (see, for example, this story). Amid the murderous catastrophe of October 7, these stories of heroism and compassion only took place because people managed not to be paralyzed by fear of the other.

How many other situations in our world might we see as situations of mutual fear, like Esau and Jacob? Obviously our world includes far too many genuine dangers from which we must protect ourselves – a truth so tragically confirmed on October 7. But this Biblical story, like the children’s story of Itamar, highlights that having our guard up at every moment does not always make our world safer. Sometimes too much fear makes our lives more dangerous.  And sometimes the way to make our world safer is to encounter the other directly — and to verify that, regardless of what we have imagined, sometimes the other does not actually have teeth on their tail.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.