VaYishlach – Kyle Rittenhouse and Jacob…

This week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, began with Jacob preparing to see his brother Esau, with whom he was estranged, after many years. He sent messengers ahead to scout out the meeting. The messengers return saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him. Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”

What was Jacob thinking? His brother was approaching him with 400 men. Would the encounter be friendly? Would Esau attack Jacob? Jacob didn’t know. Were Jacob’s fear and anxiety justified? Was he doing the right thing to try to engage Esau?

In our Torah portion, it all worked out well. Jacob and Esau saw each other, they ran and embraced. They forgave each other and they moved on. They were not particularly close going forward but they were not at war…

Our portion and its story is particularly timely today. On Friday the verdict was issued in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse who, claiming self-defense, was exonerated of all the charges laid against him for killing two people and wounding a third. Now I am in no way justifying the actions of the Rittenhouse, but I am drawn by the similarity of the situations between Jacob and Esau. Rittenhouse claimed self-defense. He stated he was in fear of his life and so he took the lives of others to save himself.

Our text says, “Jacob was greatly afraid AND anxious.” Rather than anxious, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates the Hebrew

וַיִּירָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ

as distressed.

Why the two verbs – afraid and anxious?  Afraid and distressed?   What is the difference between the two?

Quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who quotes Rabbi Judah bar Ilai as he presents the following ideas “Are not fear and distress identical?  The meaning, however, is that “he was afraid” that he might be killed: “he was distressed” that he might kill.  For Jacob thought:  If he prevails against me, will he not kill me; while if I prevail against him, will I not kill him?  That is the meaning of “he was afraid” – lest he should be killed; “and distressed” – lest he should kill.” The difference is that to be afraid is a physical anxiety; the second is a moral one.   It is one thing to be afraid for yourself, it is another to worry that you will take a life. Rabbi Sacks asks “What does the Torah say about taking a life, specifically about self-defense?  When is it permitted in Jewish law?” 

In the Talmud Sanhedrin 72a we read, “If someone comes to kill you, forestall it by killing him.”  If you are in mortal danger and you fear for your life, you are allowed to take a preemptive move… BUT, we also read “If the [one] pursued could have been saved by maiming a limb of the pursuer, but instead the rescuer killed the pursuer, the rescuer is liable to capital punishment on that account.”…. Jacob is worried that he might kill some of Esau’s men when merely injuring them, would have been enough.  In today’s language, he is worried about collateral damage. 

Jacob is faced with a moral dilemma…. If he is forced to fight and to kill, he will either be killed, or if he is victorious, he will have taken a life, possibly injuring others, and he will have lost his brother. But Jacob holds two emotions at the same time. He is both afraid and distressed – it is a lose-lose situation. His soul is troubled… In fact, the night before the encounter, as he sleeps, Jacob encounters a man/an angel with whom he wrestles all night. There are many interpretations as to who this man is, but one is that Jacob wrestled with himself, with his conscience, being highly troubled at the prospect of the coming encounter with Esau.

Using force, taking a life, is sometimes necessary. In fact, we are taught that to save a life is the highest value and that begins with saving our own. If two people are in the desert and one has water and one doesn’t, rather than share and have them both die, we are taught that the one with the water should drink it and survive. Which isn’t to say that the one who lives doesn’t have survivors’ guilt or makes the decision lightly. But the use of lethal force is not forbidden.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks about these mixed feelings “These mixed feelings were born thousands of years earlier, when Jacob, father of the Jewish people, experienced not only the physical fear of defeat but the more distress of victory.  Only those who are capable of feeling both, can defend their bodies without endangering their souls.”

I can’t speak about what Kyle Rittenhouse was thinking as he set forth that night, armed with a rifle and bullets, but I can say that should we ever be in a situation where we are forced to use lethal force, may we be both afraid and distressed.

Shabbat shalom.

2 thoughts on “VaYishlach – Kyle Rittenhouse and Jacob…

  1. Hi Rabbi Jamie. It think both your description of Jacob’s fear and distress, and that of Rittenhous’s fear, overlook the context — how did they get into that situation in the first place? Rittenhouse came to a disruptive demonstration armed and looking for trouble, which he found. Jacob felt he was about to face the consequence of his long-ago theft of Esau’s birthright. He could have approached Esau with remorse rather than getting ready to kill or be killed. In fact, Esau approached their meeting with intention of forgiveness, thereby avoid any violent confrontation. I think he brought 400 men with him in order to demonstrate that he could take revenge on his brother Jacob but instead was choosing to forgive him. Bottom line: a kill-or-be-killed situation often is the result of myopic vision, of not envisioning a wider context for behavior.

    You quoted that Talmud as saying, “If two people are in the desert and one has water and one doesn’t, rather than share and have them both die, we are taught that the one with the water should drink it and survive.” That “advice” seems immoral to me. One never knows what may happen, perhaps both would be able to survive with only half a ration of water. For one to withhold water from another in the same thirsty circumstance is a mortally selfish act. And when contemplating what is the root of evil in our world, I conclude it to be selfishness. I would be deeply disappointed in our heritage, if the Talmud’s quote represents Jewish morality.


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