The last year has sadly introduced tragedies into synagogues that North American Jews have not had to suffer before. Like the countless other acts of anti-Semitism that have been perpetrated against our people throughout history, these have left their unsightly scars on the Jewish psyche while we try to carry on with positivity and hope for a better future. This week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach contains some timeless perspectives that can help us consider a constructive reaction to these unfortunate events.
Jacob had become a refugee of the land of Canaan and his parents’ home after he received his father’s blessings that were originally intended for his twin brother, Esau. Esau became enraged and plotted to murder him, so Jacob fled for his life. Thirty-four years later, Jacob returns with his large family to his native land and anticipates a hostile welcome from Esau, whose decades-long enmity has not diminished. His scouts report the Esau is approaching with an army of 300 strong. Jacob’s threefold reaction to this threat can serve as a guide to structure our response to the contemporary Esaus that we encounter.
Jacob first tried the diplomatic approach. After his first attempt failed, he persisted. He devised an elaborate array of gifts sent with three groups of representatives. Each group would deliver its expensive collection of livestock and a brief verbal message in which Jacob refers to his estranged brother in the most deferential terms. Jacob’s ongoing diplomatic efforts suggest neutralizing the threat of anti-Semitism before it escalates via education, bridge building and public relations.
Jacob also prepared in case of attack. He split the camp into two independent groups so if one were attacked the other could escape. Later, he personally led the approach in front of his family so he would be able to defend them against an attack. Jacob’s trust in G-d did not prevent him from taking the threat seriously.
If we want our synagogues and other Jewish spaces to be safe, we must make that happen. The security measures and procedures that we encounter at airports, events and public buildings are often an inconvenience, but their ubiquity shows that we consider them a necessary if unfortunate part of life. Many congregations have organized members into teams that oversee security sometimes with the help of an off-duty police officer. There are Orthodox rabbis who allow, when necessary, some Shabbat restrictions to be put aside in ways that enable congregants to ensure shul security.
Our community is fortunate to have excellent free resources provided by organizations like the Federation and Community Security Service. Each community and congregation must assess its own threat level and security needs but whatever they may be, Jacob’s example shows us that ignoring the issue is irresponsible.
Aside from his diplomatic and defensive measures, Jacob deployed a third parallel tactic with a spiritual dimension: prayer. “And Jacob said, ‘O G-d of my father Abraham … deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me [and strike] a mother with children’” (Bereshit 32). The feeling that the steps we take to protect ourselves and our families are sufficient to protect us without G-d’s help is not new: “If G-d will not build the house, they that build it labor in vain; if G-d will not guard the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Psalms 127). The house needs a contractor; the city, a guard. But we must not have the hubris to think we can do it without G-d’s help. Increased synagogue involvement, synagogue attendance and tefillah (prayer) can only help our cause.
May our forefather Jacob’s example of diplomacy, self-defense and prayer help us maintain our safety so we may carry on and expand upon our great Jewish legacy. JN
Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.