I want to share the text of a letter our congregation received this week from SOMA Action, a local progressive advocacy group in South Orange-Maplewood that we often partner with:
Dear Rabbi Olitzky and the Beth El Community, our friends and neighbors,
During this time of increased anti-semitism, and violence directed at Jews in our state, SOMA Action stands with our neighbors and friends in renouncing hate and violence. We thank your congregation for always being welcoming, and please know we stand with you in denouncing hate crimes against all peoples including those motivated by anti-semitism.
The Board and Chairs of SOMA Action
Parashat Vayishlach begins with Jacob’s fear:
Vayira Yaakov me’od v’yeitzer lo. And Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed. He was scared and anxious (Gen. 32:8).
Jacob responded by praying to God:
Hatzileini Nah miyad Achi miyah Esav ki Yarei Anochi oto pen-yavo v’hikani em al-banim. Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, because I am fearful and I am scared, that he will come and strike me down — that he will hurt me — me, my children, and the mother of my children alike (Gen. 32:12)
Midrash HaGadol, a compilation of aggadic midrashim by Rabbi Adani of 14th century Yemen, shares the midrash of Jacob’s wives seeing his fear. Together, the four of them ask, “if you were scared, then why did we go on this journey? If you were scared, then why did we ever leave our father’s home?” They are essentially saying, we wouldn’t been safer if we stayed inside, if we never left our home.
Fear is real. In this biblical narrative, Jacob saw his brother who held a grudge towards him, who presumably sought revenge, approaching with 400 men. Jacob assumed that Esau hated him, and was fearful for his own safety. I feel for Jacob. And lately, I’ve felt like Jacob.
Just last week, another deadly antisemitic attack occurred in this country, this one hitting especially close to home, taking place a short drive away in Jersey City. Jersey City is the second largest city in our state, with over a quarter of a million residents. It is a city that is home to many congregants, and a city that used to be home to others. It’s the natural place where so many in our community move to after leaving New York City, a stop along the way before settling in South Orange-Maplewood, and similarly, it has become the place where so many have moved to after downsizing and leaving SOMA, but close enough that they can remain a part of our Jewish community.
And I admit, I am scared, even in a place where I know I shouldn’t be, even in a community that celebrates diversity. This is a community where I’ve always felt comfortable wearing a kippah around town; I’m just as comfortable doing so in the halls of South Orange Middle School as I am at our local Jewish Day School, Golda Och Academy; I’m just as comfortable doing so strolling down the aisles of the local Stop & Shop as I am when I shop at Aron’s Kosher Market; I am just as comfortable wearing a kippah on my head when I sit on the lawn at Memorial Park during Maplewoodstock as I am when I attend morning minyan. But comfort and reassurance doesn’t necessarily change fear.
The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the 17th century rabbi of Prague, wonders how it is that Jacob could even be scared. He ponders: what reason does Jacob have to be fearful? God already promised to protect him – first, in his vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to the Heavens, and second, when he left his father-in-law Laban’s home.
The Kli Yakar is essentially wondering how it is possible that even when God reassures Jacob that he will be safe, that he is still fearful for his safety. But that is how we all feel. And that is what we are going through. We should feel safe in our community, but are still fearful.
Vayishlach continues to tell us that when Jacob was left alone, he wrestled with a man until dawn. Only at daybreak did he realize that the man he was wrestlign was in fact an angel, and the angel blessed Jacob, changing his name to Israel.
Rashbam, the 12th century French Torah commentator, says this angel was there to make sure he did not run and made sure he did not hide. This angel remained with him to make sure no harm would come upon him. This angel is essentially there to make sure he doesn’t follow the advice that his wives recommend in the midrash. This angel makes sure he does not live his life in fear.
I would even suggest that Jacob was wrestling with himself, that he was his own angel. The angel was his own bravery, his own courage, that helped him not live in fear. Either way, the message is clear: an angel watching over him, allowed him to feel safe, because he was safe.
As news unfolded last week about this deadly antisemitic attack, the first calls I received were from those outside of the Jewish community – neighbors, and neighboring houses of worship, advocacy groups, and elected officials — asking what they could do to be there for the Jewish community, what they could do to help us feel safer, what they could do to be our angels.
And in a way, simply by making such an offer, it was clear already that they are.
The answer to not living in fear, in this very scary world, is to be angels for each other – the stand up for each other — and to stand with each other — to protect each other, so that we know we are not alone. We are angels for each other because we realize that hate towards anyone is really hate towards everyone. And we are angels for each other because that is ultimately what God wants for us and from us, to understand that we all have the power to embrace each other just as Jacob and Esau ultimately do, with love.
We sit with our sorrow. And we are understandably scared. But let us sit with our angels among us and around us. And may we be angels to each other. The well-known words of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav, words that we often sing, remind us:
Kol HaOlam Kulu, Gesher Tzar Meod, V’haIkar, Lo Lefached Klal. The whole world is a very narrow bridge. But the essence and essential lesson is to not live in fear.
He is not teaching that the world is narrow, meaning small. Rather, the world is a very narrow bridge. I imagine it to be like a small and tight rope bridge, swinging over a canyon, with each step we take, the wood creaks, and we hope the bridge won’t snap. And yet, the most important lesson is that we do not fear. Because that is not how to live our lives. Instead we strive to be angels for each other, and angels for ourselves. May we learn from — and live by — this important lesson.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky