Sermon: Looking beyond ourselves

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 December 2019

Jacob is scared.
With Esau and 400 men coming to meet him, the beginning of Genesis 32 tells us, “Jacob was very afraid and distressed”.

He splits his people and flocks in two to protect his wealth – if Esau attacks one camp, then the other might survive, he states; he pleads to God for mercy, “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother… I fear he may come and strike me down”; then he sends presents ahead to Esau in an attempt to appease him.

But why? Why is he so scared that he has to take these desperate measures?

The obvious answer – the plain meaning of the text – is that he is concerned for his own welfare, praying for rescue from one stronger than himself: ‘I fear he may come and strike me down’, he says.  Jacob has wronged his brother, so he has an understandable expectation of conflict.  And here his brother comes, in great force.  Not unreasonably, Jacob is scared for himself; that he and his household and his belongings are in danger, and he acts accordingly.

The rabbis, though, have a slightly different take.  In a midrash on that verse in Genesis 32, “Jacob was very afraid and distressed”, they ask, “Why [is this idea expressed] twice?” Why both very afraid and distressed?  They answer, “He was afraid that he might be killed and he was distressed that he might [have to] kill.”

This is not found in the Torah itself.  In fact it’s in tension with the tone of the biblical text, which strongly conveys, almost drips with, Jacob’s anxiety.
So why introduce this new idea?

In part it reflects a kind of particularistic bravado.  How could our ancestor, the hero of our family story, possibly have been scared?  Jacob was the sort of person who could wrestle with an angel – surely he wouldn’t be scared of just a man?

There’s also a small theological problem that they wish to – at least partially – solve.  God had made promises to Jacob.  Wasn’t his fear a sign of lack of trust?  Better that he be afraid for another than for himself, seeing as God was with him.

But this isn’t all.
This rabbinic idea is not just about celebrating Jacob’s power, or acknowledging God’s.
At that moment of fear and anxiety, of threat and crisis, the rabbis plant within Jacob an amazing thing. Despite it all, at that moment he has the ability, the desire, to see beyond himself, beyond his own needs.  To think about the implications of the situation for someone else.

It is important to the rabbis that he is motivated not only by concern for himself, but also for his brother and his brother’s men.   That when he seeks to avoid conflict it is not merely for his own sake, but for that of others too.

Underlying this midrash – this piece of rabbinic imagination – is a vision of how we ought to be.  It is not enough, the rabbis are telling us to care only about our own wellbeing.   Even in a moment of personal crisis and threat, it is not enough to be motivated only by our own needs.  The ability to look beyond ourselves also matters.

This is a running, indeed defining, theme in our tradition.  It is what the writer Rabbi Donniel Hartman calls ‘the religious ethic of non-indifference’.  It is found repeatedly throughout our foundational stories. Abraham and Moses are particular exemplars of non-indifference.  And when it is not there, the rabbis either critique – as, for example, in the case of Noah – or, as here, they add it in.

It is not only Jacob who comes to this moment with a wider view, a concern beyond himself.  In the piece of Torah that Louis read for us it is an attribute displayed by Esau too.  Presented with all the gifts that Jacob offers him, Esau is not concerned with his own interests.  Rather, he states, in one of the more beautiful sentiments of Torah, “I have enough my brother; let what you have remain yours”.

At the end of our portion, the reconciliation of Esau and Jacob is not total.  Both are still wary, Jacob especially.  They go off in different directions – once again Jacob deceives his brother.  But they are reconciled, conflict is avoided, the world is better for their interaction.  And essential to this is that both come concerned not only for their own needs, for their own interests, but also for that of the other.  Both are able to place their own selfish need, their own history, to one side.  To say, “I have enough, what do you need?” To say, “I do not wish to be killed, to suffer, but I do not wish you to die or suffer either”.

However we may feel about the events of the last 48 hours, what most will agree is that our country, our society, is in need of its moment of reconciliation.  Over the last few years we have been too inward looking, too concerned with our own interests and opinions, unable to look beyond ourselves and ask what others need.  This has been true of parties, of religious communities, of political blocs.  True too of individuals – 1 in 6 of all tweets sent to candidates in this election have been abusive or insulting.

And there will be a temptation for this to continue.  To the victor the spoils, as it were.  And to the loser, months of internal, potentially bitter, and definitely unproductive, wrangling.

Our portion, and the rabbinic treatment of it, are a timely reminder that real reconciliation, the healing of which the Prime Minister spoke yesterday, is possible only if we care, genuinely care about the wellbeing and the voice of those with whom we are in tension.  Reconciliation is possible only if those in a position of power (for these are two powerful men in our portion – leaders of peoples, of households, of armies) are willing to stop and think about the implications of their behaviours for others.  Reconciliation is possible only if, even at times of anxiety and threat, we can ask about the risk the other encounters, too.

This is a fundamental challenge of our time: to go beyond self-concern, self-interest, and care about what those beyond ourselves think and need.

Like Jacob and Esau our reconciliation will not be total.  We will remain wary, quite reasonably concerned for our own futures, for our own wellbeing; holding our own narratives, feeling our own anxieties.  We, like them, are pointing in different directions.

But like them, a level of reconciliation is possible in the months ahead- if we are also concerned by the impact we have on others.  If we, and those who lead us, like Jacob in the imagination of the rabbis, find the ability to look beyond ourselves.

And then, perhaps, like Jacob and Esau, we can reconcile, can embrace and kiss, before we head off once again in our different directions.