We live in a time of fear and anxiety. As Jews and members of the Jewish community, we are particularly attuned to the rise in antisemitism. On Wednesday, another horrific attack was unleashed upon a Jewish business, a Kosher market, in New Jersey. As we mourn with the families of those murdered and pray for a speedy recovery to the many injured, we must also act. Often, sociologists have reminded us, Jews are the canaries in the coal mine. The hatred exhibited towards another because of race, creed, color, gender or sexual orientation is almost always preceded by a rise in antisemitic rhetoric and action.
We know that people who hate Jews do not reserve their animus towards Jews alone. Not only are we the canaries, we must also see ourselves in the vanguard. We have the unique responsibility to be on the front line to defend against all forms of xenophobia as we seek to create a world in which this hatred cannot exist. Our tradition, with great clarity, calls us to think creatively and with an eye towards innovation when consumed with fear.
Our ancestor, Jacob, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is in such a position. Years earlier, Jacob cheated his brother out of the inheritance due to the first born. Esau comes back from the field weak and vulnerable. Jacob takes advantage of his brother’s hunger and trades a bowl of red lentil stew for the birthright that by birth belonged to Esau. Later, Jacob will lie in order to take the blessing meant for Esau for himself. Again, he takes advantage of the vulnerability of another. His father, Isaac, is blind and cannot see if the son he is blessing, is Esau or Jacob.
In a classic case of what goes around comes around, Jacob is cheated and deceived by his father-in-law, Laban. Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. He winds up working more than 14 years for his father-in-law to be able to marry his beloved too.
Now, Jacob is confronted with the truth of his past. He must come face to face with Esau. The text says of Jacob that he was greatly afraid, vayira, and vayetzer lo, usually translated as distressed. One of the first rules of Torah commentary is that the text is not repetitive. No word is superfluous. If he was afraid, of course he was distressed. Why do we have this apparent repetition?
The fear we understand. Jacob is terrified that Esau will take his revenge and kill him. We also understand the distress this fear causes. It is only natural. However, the Hebrew words, vayetzer lo, can have a very different meaning. I suggest we translate the phrase as Jacob decided that he “must get creative.” This is the same verb, yatzar, used to describe God’s creation of the world. Jacob decides to recreate himself, or at least how he responds to his brother. Jacob wants to reimagine the relationship and what it could be. It is a huge risk for him and very scary.
Jacob creates three options. First, he imagines the worst case: Esau attacks him. Jacob splits his camp into two groups so that if one is attacked the other can escape. Next, he sends Esau gifts, an attempt to show that he is a much more generous and caring person than his younger self. Last, he prays to God for support and strength, something he has never tried before. When they meet, the outcome is more than Jacob could have imagined. Esau embraces Jacob in a tearful hug, melting away all past grievances and the fear that held Jacob in its grip.
The lesson for us is that we, too, have the ability to reimagine, to turn our fear into the creative energy with which to address what has caused us to despair. Indeed, with the fear of antisemitism and the extreme hatred of the other it always represents, we must reimagine the future and how we can affect the change our world needs.
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.