“We Can Forgive the Arabs for Killing Our Children…”
(updated and revised from Vayishlach 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As we increase our knowledge of Torah, we cannot help but realize how frequently we encounter revolutionary insights about life from seemingly insignificant verses in the weekly parasha.

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, 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 him, accompanied by 400 men. Jacob has no idea whether Esau’s intentions are peaceful or hostile? The Torah informs us that Jacob was fearful. Scripture, Genesis 32:8, states: וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד, וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ, and Jacob was very frightened and extremely distressed. Jacob 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 had previously received, (Genesis 28:13-15), 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 natural for a person to be afraid when confronted with a possible hostile attack. So, Jacob’s fear is to be expected. And, 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 feature two aspects of fear, וַיִּירָא and וַיֵּצֶר, that Jacob was both frightened and distressed? Rashi provides an important, indeed historic, insight. Citing the Midrash Tanchuma 4 and Genesis Rabbah 76:2, Rashi notes, וַיִּירָא, Jacob was frightened—שֶׁמָּא יֵהָרֵג, lest he be killed.  וַיֵּצֶר לו,ֹ  and he was distressed– אִם יַהֲרֹג הוּא אֶת אֲחֵרִים, 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 at all 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 an actual 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 cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children!”

It is told, that during the Holocaust, a Chassidic Rebbe, along with a number of his Chassidim, were imprisoned by the Nazis. 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 existence of the Chassidim. Summoning the Rebbe, he proceeded to advise him that this Friday 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 enraged by the Chassidim’s enthusiasm, after all, they surely knew that they would soon breathe their last breath. Nevertheless, their joy and singing were 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 responded 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 knowing 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 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 אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּעַת, 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: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, Blessed are you L-rd Our G-d, King of the universe, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, G-d, You differentiate and discern between what is sanctified and what is not sanctified, בֵּין אוֹר לְחֹשֶׁךְ, between light and darkness, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, between Israel and the other nations, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, between the 7th day and the other 6 days of creation. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה השׁם, Blessed are You G-d, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, 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 a special, priceless, gift from the Al-mighty and the ultimate legacy that the Jewish people have a sacred responsibility to share with the world.

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 causes and movements now trying to diminish the value of human life by promoting such practices as euthanasia and mercy-killing, and the gross indifference we see at the extraordinary amount of violence and murder that is occurring in our country, it is critical that we, the Jewish people, redouble our efforts to communicate our vital message regarding the extreme 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.