Fear and Distress

Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Rabbi Noman Cohen, senior rabbi of Bet Shalom temple in Minnesota. As it always does, our conversation spanned a range of subjects, and at one point turned to the Torah reading for last night’s Shabbat service.

In the reading from Genesis, Jacob and Esau are about to meet for the first time in over twenty years. This meeting is a source of anxiety for Jacob, as he knows that his brother had once sworn to kill him in revenge for stealing his birthright. Jacob, who has sent messengers ahead has been told by the returning messengers that Esau is coming to meet Jacob, accompanied by four hundred men.

The next line of the scripture tells us that “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.”

Many people view the phrase “afraid and distressed” as a duplication of descriptions of Jacob’s state, as expressing a single emotion.

However, Rabbi Cohen explained to me, a midrash (the term for a learned interpretation of the Torah) to the passage draws an important distinction between the two terms. It suggests that the use of “afraid” conveys Jacob’s fear that his brother would kill him, while the use of “distress” conveys Jacob’s concern that he might be forced to kill his brother in self-defense.

Why would Jacob feel distress? Surely killing his brother could be morally justified; Jewish law clearly recognizes the permissibility of killing in self-defense.

The midrash reminds us that there is something more at stake than the ethical question of whether an act of violence against another can be morally justified – an important reminder to us as we evaluate individual and national actions in the world today.

That reminder is expressed clearly in a sermon by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi (Orthodox) of England, that my friend sent to me following our lunch. Discussing Jacob’s distress, Rabbi Sacks suggests that there is a moral dilemma here. He says

I ought not to do A (allow myself to be killed); I ought not to do B (kill someone else); but I must do one or the other. To put it more precisely, there may be situations in which doing the right thing is not the end of the matter. The conflict may be inherently tragic. The fact that one principle (self-defence) overrides another (the prohibition against killing) does not mean that, faced with such a choice, I am without qualms. Sometimes being moral means that I experience distress at having to make such a choice. Doing the right thing may mean that I do not feel remorse or guilt, but I still feel regret or grief that I had to do what I did.

A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the moral life. In a conflict between two rights or two wrongs, there may be a proper way to act (the lesser of two evils, or the greater of two goods), but this does not cancel out all emotional pain. A righteous individual may sometimes be one who is capable of distress even when they know they have acted rightly. What the midrash is telling us is that Judaism recognises the existence of dilemmas. Despite the intricacy of Jewish law and its meta-halakhic principles for deciding which of two duties takes priority, we may still be faced with situations in which there is an ineliminable cause for distress. It was Jacob’s greatness that he was capable of moral anxiety even at the prospect of doing something entirely justified, namely defending his life at the cost of his brother’s.

Rabbi Sacks’ explanation illuminates why I was so uncomfortable when people cheered when Osama bin laden was killed. It may have been morally justified to kill him, but that doesn’t mean the killing should not cause us distress. Our inflicting harm on another – albeit justified – takes something from us. Rabbi Sacks quotes Yitzhak Rabin, who made the same point about the reaction of Israeli soldiers after the Six Day War in 1967. Rabin said

We find more and more a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is incomplete, and more than a small portion of sorrow and shock prevails in their festivities, and there are those who abstain from celebration. The warriors in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory but the price of victory: their comrades who fell beside them bleeding, and I know that even the terrible price which our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men. It may be that the Jewish people has never learned or accustomed itself to feel the triumph of conquest and victory, and therefore we receive it with mixed feelings.

The dilemma is a real one, and we should acknowledge it.