I’m the father of three boys, two of whom are the age of military service. Their many good childhood friends, cousins, and children of some of my own closest friends are all currently serving in the IDF. This drasha written decades ago by my teacher Rabbi Shmuel Avidor haCohen, z”l goes straight to my heart today as I think and worry constantly about these soldiers I love.
“When we study the Rashi, it becomes clear that our father Ya’akov [Jacob] in this torah portion stood before a problem far greater than a possible attack from his brother Esau. Rashi explains the redundant expression of Yaakov’s fearfulness in Beresheit 32:8 as follows:
וַיִּירָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב – Jacob feared: What did he fear? That he might be killed.
וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ – and he was fearfully distressed: Why was he fearfully distressed? That he might have to kill others.
Jacob’s problem is not purely a security challenge, it’s also a moral challenge: What are the possible results of war? Either that one kills, or that one is themselves killed! This situation is all the more terrifying when on the other side stands – a brother!
This is why Ya’akov prays: ‘Save me please from my brother, from Esau.’ He’s like someone who says, ‘I don’t know if, in this war that I’m in, whether I’m going to meet an ‘Esau’ – a generic enemy who attacks seeking to take my soul – or whether I’m going to meet a ‘brother’ whom, if I kill him or if he kills me, either way our parents will be brought to inconsolable grief.’
Hasn’t Jacob’s problem turned out to be THE question of questions of our existence here in the State of Israel? Haven’t we reached the situation in which we stand perpetually before this dilemma: Kill? Or be killed? Either we succeed in killing ‘the Arabs’ who – like us – are people also with names and families, or they will kill us. All of us in this Land have lived for years in the shadow of this awful problem. All of us without exception are in the situation of “fear” and “distress.” No one wants to die. No one wants their children to be killed.
Yet what is it that is so necessary as to require that we take the lives of others?
True, on the field of battle there are “forces” against “forces”, camp vs. camp. But when it crosses the soldier’s mind that every bullet of his, every shell, every grenade will make someone somewhere a grieving mother, a dejected widow, an orphan completely broken; that these weapons will cut short the buoyant spirit of life, put an end to hopes, to dreams, to illusions, to life…Is this not petrifying? Is not every soldier who shoots just as miserable as the one at whom he shoots?
But what, not to shoot?! Not to fight the battle already underway?! It is doubtful that he would remain alive were he to do so, no, it is almost certain he would be killed by someone in the other camp…
This horrible situation is expressed in Jacob’s prayer: “I am unworthy of all the kindness [hesed] and truth [emet] that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant…” [Beresheit 32:11]
Truth [emet] says: ‘When someone comes to kill you – rise up and kill them first’. You don’t treat an Esau with silk-gloves when he’s coming at you with 400 men. You don’t display hesitation or sentimentality, you neutralize him right away before he can attack.
Yet Kindness [hesed] says: Don’t kill, don’t spill blood, don’t make wars, behave in all matters a great degree of kindness and compassion. Jacob stands and shouts: “I am unworthy [katonti – literally, ‘too small’] for all the kindness [hesed] and truth [emet]…” He feels himself to be too small, without the ability, to decide which to prioritize and when: The Truth or the Kindness? Which takes precedence when only one can exist?
And now it is clear that this spiritual and moral struggle plays out within Jacob’s heart, the struggle between Kindness and Truth, fear and distress, kill or be killed…
…Through this struggle, Jacob is called a new name – Yisrael, meaning ‘to struggle with God and with people and prevail.’ Israel must struggle, must wage war, must sometimes kill but never, ever, for even a moment ignore war’s devastating moral consequences.”
Rabbi Michael Schwartz