Thursday, November 26, 2015

Fear, doubt and “the Muslims” Vayishlach

Photo by Nasrul Ekram,
reproduced under creative commons
license 2.0
Late one evening this week, I received yet another Facebook private message expressing hostility towards Muslims and Islam. This kind of hostility is often driven by fear, a combination of healthy self-preservation instincts given the terrible deeds of some, and misunderstanding due to an absence of meaningful contact with Muslim people. More generally, fear in peoples’ lives may be driven by self-doubt. In cultures that value confidence, feeling afraid can make one feel ashamed; hostility can serve as a more acceptable mask.

As he traveled home to the land of his birth, the Biblical Jacob became afraid and distressed about his brother Esau coming toward him with 400 men.  His fear was of being killed in an attack but his distress is interpreted as relating to the prospect of him killing his attackers.1 Yet that interpretation is questioned by other scholars who ask why Jacob should be distressed about killing assailants in self-defence? 2 I find this second line of commentary disturbing. Surely the prospect of spilling blood”, destroying the priceless treasure that is every human being, is distressing to the spirit! 3 Fear about our safety due to the threat of terrorism, and acceptance of the need for defensive measures, should never be allowed to overcome our humanity, to blur our sense of right and wrong toward innocent people - including Muslims.

An alternative suggestion is that Jacob was distressed because he was grappling with two opposing arguments about killing his attackers. On the one hand, he had been promised protection by God which rendered him invincible; as his life would not be in danger, killing his assailants could not be justified based on concern for his own survival.  On the other hand, however, he might have sinned and in consequence lost God’s protection, in which case his life would be in danger and he would be justified in killing to defend it.4 

A related interpretation finds reason for his distress in the mouths of his wives.  If you are afraid, why did you take us out of our father’s house? Rather you should trust in the ‘shade of your Creator’ who told you to return to the land of your fathers”. Immediately, “Jacob felt afraid of the external threat of attack by his brother and distressed internally because of the criticism of his wives”.5   Their words seem to have stung because he felt ashamed of his doubt. I feel for him.

All the above discussion assumes the possibility of a credible threat.  In an alternative authoritative interpretation Jacob had received a report from his scouts that in fact his brother Esau was approaching with 400 men to honour Jacob. The scouts reported that the delegation was motivated by Esau’s joy about Jacob’s return and his love for his brother. Yet Jacob disregarded the report of his own fact-finding and goodwill mission because he didn’t believe the evidence. He was so afraid because he clung to his prejudgment about Esau’s evil intentions.6 The intelligence from the scouts seems to have been proven correct, however, when Esau ran toward Jacob, hugged him, kissed him and cried when they met.7  Our response to perceived threats should respect evidence, or the absence of evidence, and be proportionate.

Fear and doubt are reasonable and natural reactions to threats of violence and the horrible deeds we have lately heard about, read about and seen on film. In one sense, it is unreasonable to feel ashamed of this fear. Yet some sense of shame can also be useful; it challenges us when we think we are letting ourselves down. When confronted with fear of the other, or with ourselves and when confronted with self-doubt, it is a good time to pray, to take some time alone 8 and to wrestle with the feelings, the facts and our faith. Jacob did that and emerged a champion.9   

1 Bereshit Rabba 76, cited in Rashi
2 Mizrahi on Genesis 32:8, Beer Basadeh, written by 19th century Bosnian Jewish scholar Rabbi Meir Danon
3 Kasher, R. Menachem, in Torah Shlaima p. 1267, note 50, follows the tradition about God silencing the song of the angels during the splitting of the sea because his Egyptian “creations were drowning”
4 Beer Basadeh on Genesis 32:8
5 Ner Haschalim, manuscript cited in Torah Shlaima p. 1266, 50
6 Rashbam Genesis 32:7, Bchor Shor offers a similar but less definite approach. In his view the scouts report that they came back and they don’t know what is in Esau’s mind, wether for good or bad because he didn’t respond to their questions, instead he said I will go to him and speak with him, “mouth to mouth”. 
7 Genesis 33:4, although one would think this evidence settles the argument about Esau’s good will, it does not. There is an argument in the Sifre cited in Rashi about Esau’s sincerity. One view asserts that in that moment he kissed him with his whole heart with another view that in fact it was done with his whole heart.  
8 Genesis 32:25
9 Genesis 32:29


  1. A good beginning. I hope the author will apply it to the world we inhabit today to provide a religious means to look at, learn from and deal with our fear of others, and there's of us.

  2. Larry, I agree. rest assured I have been working at trying to apply the principles in this post for the last 10 years in my work in Australia. Good to see the interfaith and peace building work you are involved in according to your profile. Chazak V'Ematz. May all our efforts contribute to good outcomes for all. Zalman