Torahg the Warrior: Sword of Vengeance

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So when the text describes Jacob as "terrified" and "anxious," there must be a reason for both descriptions. The midrash B ' reishit Rabbah offers an explanation:. Judah bar R. Ilai asked: Are not fear and distress identical? The meaning, however, is that "he was afraid" lest he should be slain and "he was distressed" lest he should slay. For he thought: If Esau proves stronger than I, he might slay me, and if I prove stronger than he, I might slay him. B ' reishit Rabbah ; Bialik, Ravnitzky, eds.

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In typical midrashic fashion, the Rabbis present a more complicated character of Jacob than is obvious in the Torah. In their eyes, Jacob fears both his brother and what he himself may have to do to his brother in his own defense. This text comes to teach us a lesson about responding to violence in the world without compromising our own humanity.

The principle at stake is the setting of moral boundaries around the wielding of power. There are times when we face legitimate threats to our safety or survival. In those instances, self-defense is a moral obligation, not just a permitted option. But Jewish tradition imposes limits on our use of force, even in legitimate self-defense, be it full-scale warfare or interpersonal conflict.

It invites us to consider how to fight evil without becoming evil. Jewish values call us to be reluctant warriors—like Jacob in the midrash—who can balance self-preservation with the moral use of power. A moral agent must use nonlethal force if that option is available. Maimonides affirms this principle in the Mishneh Torah:.

When a person can save a victim at the cost of a limb [of the pursuer], and he does not take the trouble to do it, but instead saved the victim at the cost of the pursuer's life [by killing him], such a person is a shedder of blood and is liable for death. Even though the command to save a life bears great sanctity in our tradition, the Rabbis do not consider it a blank check. One who kills in order to save a life, including his own, is considered a murderer if he had a nonlethal option and failed to use it.

Jewish tradition also warns against the glorification of violence, even when justified. In a poignant exchange between father and son, King David explains to Solomon why God has chosen the son and not the father to build the temple:. But the word of Adonai came to me, saying, 'You have shed much blood and fought great battles; you shall not build a House for My name, for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.

But you will have a son who will be a man at rest, for I will give him rest from all his enemies on all sides; Solomon will be his name and I shall confer peace and quiet on Israel in his time. He will build a House for My name. King David fought wars on behalf of the Jewish people, conquered enemies, and paved the way for a powerful, sovereign Jewish kingdom based in Jerusalem. Now, in his old age, he acknowledges what God has already decreed.

Even his violence on behalf of Israel has a cost; it has left him tainted as a shedder of blood. The sacred privilege of building God's Temple shall fall to the man of peace, not the man of war. The Hebrew prophets' vision of the days of redemption aspired to peace.

Isaiah spoke of a day when the nations "shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war" Isaiah Maimonides codified this aspiration into law:. The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the days of the messiah in order to have dominion over the entire world. Rather, they wanted to be free to devote themselves to Torah and wisdom with no one oppressing or disturbing them. In that era, there will be neither famine or war, jealousy or competition. We live in a world where violence confronts us and sometimes demands a forceful response.

Yet we always aspire to peace, especially in the midst of war. As we acknowledge the necessity of exercising power as a moral obligation, we guard against the glorification of violence. It is a Jewish responsibility to find a morally responsible stance on the spectrum between total pacifism and the uncritical embrace of power. We must recalibrate and reevaluate continually as we live in the real world. We must assess reality soberly without succumbing to fear or naivete, remaining grounded in the prophets' vision of peace as our ultimate aspiration.

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In this week's Torah portion, it turns out Jacob has nothing to fear. Esau greets him with a loving embrace, and the reunited twins cry on each other's shoulders. Fear can be a useful emotion, when it alerts us to danger and prepares us to take up the duty of self-defense.

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But fear can also lead us to misread cues and react defensively when the situation calls for a hand outstretched in friendship rather than violence. May God grant us the strength to fight when real threats confront us, the courage to pursue peace when the opportunity arises, and the wisdom to know the difference paraphrase of "The Serenity Prayer" by Reinhold Niebuhr.

Those interested in further study on these themes, and in particular on how they relate to the state of Israel and diaspora Jewry, should visit the iEngage Web-site and encourage their rabbis and educators to bring this curriculum to their congregations and communities. Rabbi Segal highlights the tension and anxiety likely felt by both brothers prior to their dramatic encounter.

His commentary raises the question of how one learns to comprehend and to implement the moral use of power. The poet John Keats described the world as a "vale of soul-making. Each of us has an inner struggle, and we must, in the end, find a way to live in community and in a familial world.

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As the mother of fraternal twin boys, I see this struggle frequently play out. More often than not, their battles, like Jacob and Esau's, result in loving embrace. They enjoy wrestling on the floor, limbs intertwined. Surely, it is a fine line between playful partnership and adversarial aggression. In a healthy family, Mary Pipher, Ph. In Vayishlach , the Torah constructs an open playing field upon which siblings can wrestle and embrace, learn to disagree respectfully, and both wield and limit power. Love and trust are not like stone; they need to be kneaded, molded, stretched, and strengthened over time.

Ideally, we learn to fight fairly within the safe confines of our homes. And these lessons stay with us when we leave home to enter the world. When Jacob reunites and reconciles with Esau, he says that seeing his brother "is like seeing the face of God" Genesis In Torah, family and nation are one.

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  8. To achieve peace, we must strive to see the other as brother or sister, and to see one another in the light of God. He has worked with science journalists at all the nation's major newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV networks and has written well over a thousand news releases and magazine articles on science and engineering over his career. He has served on the executive board of the National Association of Science Writers and is a contributor to its magazine ScienceWriters.

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    He has probably worked in every office job known to man at some point and writing kept him sane during his evenings and weekends. He writes for his own enjoyment but even though he now spends his working hours in a job he enjoys he still likes to wander off into his own imaginary worlds during his spare time. Saxon Andrew. Saxon Andrew is a former social worker with a degree in Psychology and Education from Mercer University.

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