“Why does Abbah (Dad) want to listen to Israeli radio so much?” My eight year old son Jeremy asked me as I was tucking my five year old daughter Hannah into bed.
Oh no, I thought. I had hoped to avoid this conversation. I had hoped to spare my children from worrying about our family in Israel and my daughter’s best friend who is in Jerusalem for the semester. But the kids could tell something was up.
“There are some problems in Israel now.” I began gently.
“What kind of problems?” Jeremy asked.
“Some fighting,” I said. Jeremy kept asking questions, so I explained that there are some rockets being fired into Israel and Israel is trying to shoot down the rockets before they hit the ground. (I tried to offer as G-rated an explanation of the recent events as possible).
Then, Hannah asked, “Are rockets going to fall here?”
“No,” I reassured her. I thought of my cousins and friends in Israel who aren’t able to offer their children such an unequivocal guarantee of their safety.
This week’s Torah portion echoes the fear that those parents felt. The portion begins with Jacob poised to meet his brother Esau from whom he had fled twenty years earlier fearing that Esau would murder him after Jacob tricked him out of his father’s blessing. Jacob learned that Esau is coming along with four hundred men, and “Jacob was very afraid and was distressed.” Bereshit Rabbah explains that two verbs used for his fear indicate that he had dual fears. He was afraid that Esau would kill him and distressed that he might be forced to kill his brother in self-defense.
Jacob prepared for the impending confrontation in three ways. He geared up for battle by dividing his family and entourage into two separate camps – (so that even if one group were attacked, then the other group would survive). He also sent Esau a large group of animals as a gift – hoping that diplomacy would avert a military clash. Finally, he prayed and wrestled with a mysterious stranger (or angel) through the night.
Fortunately, the anxiety-provoking encounter between Jacob and Esau did not lead to violence, but rather to an embrace. Jacob told his brother, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Reading this story in light of recent events in Israel and Gaza, I felt a number of parallels. After the kids were in bed that night, my husband and I watched Israeli television which had several powerful segments. The first was by a military commander who explained and showed the recent technological advances in weaponry that Israel was using in response to the rockets coming into Israel to target Hamas’s operations while trying to avoid civilian casualties. He showed how the person aiming the missile at a Hamas target can redirect the missile if any civilians enter its range. He quoted the Mishnah’s famous saying that anyone who kills a person, it is as if they “destroyed an entire world.” He explained that this appreciation for the sanctity of each human life is such a central part of Israeli culture that many strikes are cancelled or averted at the last moment to spare civilians. He explained that errors will occur but when they happen, they will be assessed to learn what can be done better to spare civilians.
Jacob’s two-fold fear – both of being killed and killing others – was readily apparent in the commander’s words. The general conveyed the ability of recognizing the other as also created in God’s image – which Jacob expressed to Esau when they reconciled.
The news also had two other interviews – one with an older man in Ashkelon who kept his bakery open despite the rocket-fire. He explained that his son was called up into the army, but he continued working to provide for his family. He said he hoped for “quiet.”
The other segment was an interview with an attorney also in Ashkelon who was staying home with his family and had only gone to the grocery store to get some food. He explained that although his kids were afraid, he was trying to look on the bright side and use the week as an unusual opportunity to spend lots of time with his family. He mentioned that because both he and his wife are lawyers and normally very busy, now that they were home with their kids (since the schools and offices were closed), they had an opportunity to play cards, talk and reconnect.
I was struck by the resilience and perseverance of these families. Like Jacob they prepared for the worst but prayed for the best. Even in the crisis, their actions reflected their deepest values.
I am not so naive to believe the current confrontation between Israel and Hamas will end in mutual embrace, the way that Jacob and Esau’s encounter did. Nonetheless, I hope for “quiet” – so that the bakery shop owner can sell his food in peace, and that the lawyer couple can find other ways of having quality time with their kids. Most of all, I pray for a world in which no child has to ask: “Are rockets going to fall here, Mom?”