“We Can Forgive the Arabs For Killing Our Children…”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

As we learn more and more Torah, we cannot help but realize that we frequently learn revolutionary insights about life from seemingly insignificant verses in the parasha. In last week’s portion, Vayetzei, Jacob decides that he can no longer live on the lam, and that after 20 years of running (according to other commentaries it was really 34 years), he must finally confront his brother, Esau.

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, Jacob sends emissaries to inform his brother, Esau, of his impending arrival. The messengers return to Jacob and report that Esau is heading toward Jacob, accompanied by 400 men. Jacob has no idea whether Esau’s intentions are peaceful or hostile. The Torah in Genesis 42:8 informs us that Jacob was fearful: “Va’yira Yaacov m’od, va’yetzer lo,” and Jacob was very frightened and extremely distressed. Yaacov divides his camp into two, so that at least half the people will be in a position to flee, and survive a possible attack by Esau.

Why should Jacob be afraid? After all, he has G-d’s promise of security. And why the double language of fear. Why is Jacob both “frightened” and “distressed”? Well, even under the best of circumstances, it is normal for a person to be afraid when he’s confronted with a possible attack. So Jacob’s fear is to be expected. And even though he has had G-d on his side until now, he may still be fearful that he perhaps no longer merits G-d’s protection.

But why the double language of fear? Why does the verse state “va’yira” and “va’yetzer,” that Jacob was both frightened and distressed. Rashi (the primary biblical commentator, 1040-1105) provides an important, indeed historic, insight. “Va’yira–sheh’ma yay’hah’reg,” Jacob was frightened — lest he be killed, “Va’yetzer lo,” and he was distressed, “im yah’harog hu et ah’cherim,” lest he (Jacob) would have to kill someone else, which of course indicates that Jacob was distressed lest he would be forced to confront his brother, Esau, in self defense and possibly kill him.

Does this interpretation sound familiar? It should, after all it is quite remarkable that in 1972 Golda Meir made a similar widely acclaimed statement. It is very likely that Mrs. Meir was not even aware that her statement was actually a paraphrase of the scriptural commentators. Golda Meir is quoted as having said to the Arab nations: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can not forgive them for forcing us to kill their children!”

It is told, that during the Holocaust a Chassidic Rebbe was imprisoned by the Nazis along with a number of his Chassidim. A particularly cruel gestapo Commandant was placed in charge of the Chassidim. The Commandant detested Jews in general, and Chassidim in particular. One Friday afternoon, the Nazi decided that he could no longer tolerate the Chassidim. Summoning the Rebbe, he proceeded to advise him that this evening would be the “ultimate” celebration of Shabbat. The Rebbe knew very well that it meant that it would be their final Shabbat in this world.

The Rebbe stoically informed his Chassidim, and encouraged them to be strong. Despite their desperate circumstances, the Chassidim began to prepare for Shabbat as they would normally. They straightened out their clothes, washed themselves as best they could, so that they could feel at least some sense of the holiness of the day. Accompanied by vicious dogs, the soldiers arrived, and at gunpoint, marched the Rebbe and his Chassidim out to the field.

The Commandant shouted at the Rebbe, “Tell your followers to begin to pray.” With uncommon fervor and joy the Chassidim began to sing, dance and recite Kabbalat Shabbat–the prayers which welcome the arrival of Shabbat. The Commandant was thoroughly vexed by the Chassidim’s enthusiasm, after all, they surely knew that they would soon breathe their last breath. Nevertheless, their joy and singing was undiminished!

The Commandant grabbed the Rebbe by his lapels, and screamed: “Rabbi, Rabbi, are your followers crazy? Don’t they realize that in a few moments they are all going to die?” The Rebbe said calmly, “Yes, they do.” “Then why are they singing? Why are they joyous?” demanded the Commandant. The Rebbe looked the vicious Nazi officer straight in the eye and said, “If life has fated for us to be in this situation, we are joyous and happy that we have been designated to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators!” That is exactly what Jacob stated. True, he was afraid that he might be killed. But he was even more upset and more distressed by the possibility that he may have to become a killer.

I’ve often stated that the bottom line of all Judaism is the sanctity of human life. That’s why at the end of Shabbat, in the central Amidah prayer, included in the blessing of “Ata chonen la’adam da’at,” You, G-d, endow the human being with wisdom, is an additional prayer of Havdalah, a prayer which separates Shabbat from the rest of the week. After Shabbat, a similar prayer is repeated as part of a ceremony over wine, spices, and candles. The text of the Havdalah reads: “Baruch ata Hashem elokeinu melech ha’olam,” Blessed are you L-rd Our G-d, King of the universe, “hamavdil bain kodesh l’chol,” G-d, You differentiate and discern between what is sanctified and what is not sanctified, “bain ohr la’choh’shech,” between light and darkness, “bain Yisrael la’amim,” between Israel and the other nations, “bain yom hash’vee’ee l’shay’shet y’may ha’ma’aseh,” between the 7th day and the other 6 days of creation. “Baruch ata Hashem,” Blessed are You G-d, “hamavdil bain kodesh l’chol,” who distinguishes between what is sacred and what is profane.

The greatest gift of the human intellect is to be able to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, between what is sanctified and what is profane, between that which is holy and that which is not holy. That ability to make moral distinctions is the ultimate legacy of the Jewish people.

Consequently, it is the task of the Jews to live their lives preparing for the day, for the moment, when we may be challenged to make an instantaneous moral decision that has baring on life and death. We dare not leave it to chance. That is why it is so important for every Jew to be thoroughly informed and knowledgeable Jewishly, especially when it comes to the critical questions of life and death. In light of the many activists and movements now trying to diminish the value of human life by promoting such practices as euthanasia and mercy killing, it is critical that we, the Jewish people, redouble our efforts to communicate our message about the sanctity of human life. It is our sacred duty to preserve that ultimate value and to influence others to do so as well.

May you be blessed.