There is a lesson in this week’s Torah portion (Vayetzei) about fear and anger. The parashah tells us about the twenty years Jacob spent working for his uncle Laban, herding his flocks and working in his fields. Laban had promised Jacob that he could marry his daughter Rachel in exchange for seven years of labor. But after the seven years, Laban tricked Jacob and gave him his older daughter, Leah, instead. Jacob then worked another seven years for Rachel. After that, Jacob worked for Laban for another six years to amass his own wealth. In all of those years, it seems, Laban continued the pattern of tricking and deceiving Jacob; but Jacob never complained.
Finally, after twenty years, Jacob decided that he had had enough. Instead of confronting Laban, though, he and his wives agreed to sneak away from the women’s father and Jacob’s father-in-law, taking his grandchildren and all of their belongings in the dead of the night.
Jacob put his wives, his thirteen children and all of his belongings on camels and, afraid of a confrontation with Laban, he quietly took them away from the only home they had every known. He was ready to give up on Laban without ever saying a word to him about his resentments. His fear kept his anger bottled up.
Before they left, though, Rachel went into her father’s tent and stole the household idols that were a common feature of homes in the Ancient Near East. Why? Did she want them for herself? Or, did she just want to hurt the father who had hurt her, and so she took from him the thing he prized the most? We don’t know. Maybe, she didn’t know, either. Importantly, Jacob was completely unaware that Rachel took the idols.
Laban found out about Jacob’s escape and went after him. When Laban caught up with Jacob, his daughters and his grandchildren, all of the long-simmering resentments came out into the open. Laban railed against Jacob for stealing his daughters and grandchildren. He also cried over the theft of his household idols.
The mention of the idols seem to have pushed Jacob’s anger over the edge. He had put up with this lying, scheming old man for so long that he thought he knew all of his tricks. Now, he must have thought, Laban had gone too far in accusing me of stealing. Jacob told Laban to search through his belongings. He said that if anyone in his party was found to have stollen the idols, they would be put to death. After the search turned up nothing, Jacob told Laban things he should have said years before:
“For twenty years I worked for you. Your female sheep never miscarried and I never ate a single one of your male sheep. I never brought you an animal that had been killed by beasts. I made up the loss myself. I worked through scorching heat that ravaged me by day and frost by night. Sleep fled from my eyes. Had God not been with me all that time, you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and God gave judgment last night.”
Jacob’s fear of Laban had been the cork that kept his anger bottled up for twenty years. With the stopper now removed, Jacob’s anger was red hot. He cried out in a fury for the mistreatment he had suffered.
Yet, in his anger, there was so much that Jacob failed to see. He didn’t notice the pain that Laban felt in seeing his family torn away from him. Because Jacob did not bother to find out the truth about Laban’s idols, he placed a decree of death over his beloved wife Rachel. According to rabbinic interpretation, Rachel’s death in childbirth was due to Jacob’s curse against her. Also, Jacob forgot that, for twenty years, he had been a willing participant in Laban’s trickery – that his fears had been a vital ingredient in his poisonous relationship with Laban.
I call the story of Jacob and Laban a true story. Not true in the sense of being historically factual, but true in the sense that it tells truths about our own lives. Our fears and our anger can consume us. They can blind us to reality. They can cause us to curse ourselves and to do things and say things that we will later come to deeply regret.
What do we do in our lives when we are overwhelmed by fear and anger? Do we harbor that anger and let it seethe in us forever? Do we become distracted by it and do we allow it to nestle into the depth of our identity? I believe that this happens often. Individuals who feel that they have been mistreated can allow the story of their fear and anger to become the central story of their lives. Caught in a self-fulfilling cycle in which everything feeds their fear and anger, people can lose touch with reality and rationalize terrible behavior toward others.
Whole nations and whole societies can become consumed by fear and anger in this way. That is, I believe, what has happened in some quarters of the Arab world with regard to terrorist groups like Hezbolah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and now Da’esh. They are so consumed by a narrative in which they believe that they have been victimized by the world that the only thing they can see is their own fear, anger and hatred that they lash out against innocent people. They rationalize the most horrible kinds of behavior – torture, rape and murder – and even believe that it makes them righteous. That kind of fear and anger resulted in five more innocent Israelis murdered this week in Tel Aviv and outside of Jerusalem.
I also believe that we are seeing a cycle of fearful, angry victimhood propelling our great nation, right now, into a different kind of attack on innocent people. There is a lesson in this week’s news about how fear and anger can cause us to do terrible things.
Paris was attacked by terrorists from Da’esh one week ago today. The murder of more than 120 people and the injury of hundreds more understandably frightened us. It has evoked our justified anger. However, if left unchecked, our fear and anger can expand beyond the boundaries of reality. We can begin to fear that terrorists lurk behind every corner and that every Arab and every Muslim should be suspected. Our angry response to our fears can lead us to choices that betray our values as Jews and as Americans. Ultimately, we may find that our anger causes us to do more harm to ourselves than good.
In particular, the way we treat refugees from the war in Syria – people who are just as much victims of Da’esh as the people of Paris – says a lot about how we respond to our anger and fear. Despite the fact that not a single one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks has yet to be identified as a Syrian, we are seeing these victims of terror now being vilified as terrorists themselves,
This last week in Congress, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States until federal authorities can prove definitively that none of them pose a security threat. Our own Representative Jim Langevin voted in favor of the bill.
Refugees from the war in Syria already face a daunting process before they can enter the United States, a process that lasts over a year and includes in-person interviews with officials from Interpol and the FBI. It would be quite foolish for a would-be terrorist to attempt to enter the United States through this process. Still, the measure passed by the House this week would make the process even more difficult and, perhaps, impossible. This is not the American way. It is not the Jewish way to treat people in distress.
Last month, I took members of our Confirmation class to New York City. We stood on the waterfront of Battery Park and watched the sun set over the Statue of Liberty. I read to the students the words of Emma Lazarus that are inscribed on the pedestal:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Emma Lazarus was a Sephardic Jew who lived at a time when thousands of Ashkenazic Jews were entering the US to escape pogroms in Russian. At the time, most Americans feared the new arrivals. Jewish immigrants, like the Irish and Italians before them, were depicted in the press as disease-carrying filth whose numbers included dangerous anarchists and communists. Politicians stirred the pot of passion, fear and anger by promising to "keep the trash out."
Lazarus wrote the poem, “The New Colossus” to speak up for the American value of inclusion and acceptance of immigrants. She believed that America should be a safe haven for the weary refugees of persecution, war and famine. In addition to her poetry, Lazarus took action on behalf of impoverished Jewish refugees. She helped establish organizations to train destitute Jewish immigrants to become self-supporting.
It is our obligation as Jews and Americans not to stand in the way of helping people in need. Indeed, our obligation is very much the reverse – we are commanded to be compassionate towards the most vulnerable and to look out for the interests of the stranger because, as the Torah teaches, we know the heart of the stranger (Exodus 23:9). Emma Lazarus’ words and actions reflect what America stands for and what Judaism stands for. We must not be ruled by our fear and anger.
Anger can be a motivation to do what is right and good – to take action against injustice. But, as this week’s Torah portion shows us, anger, when it is coupled with misunderstanding, fear, and plain old ignorance can lead us into saying things and doing things against our perceived enemies that we will later regret.
The true story of Jacob and Laban from the Torah is a practical lesson in its application to the world today, and it is a deeply spiritual lesson for the way we live our individual lives. We cannot allow our anger to rule over us, to consume us. Anger can swallow us whole and make us believe that we are justified in hurting others. Instead of being ruled by our anger, it is our duty to be the one who rules over our passions and direct them toward the cause of justice and righteousness, not to give in to fear and ignorance.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Balak: Curses, Foiled Again.
Government Shutdown and the Talmud