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Student perspectives

Responding to violence

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 This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, is one that most people have heard. It is when Jacob fights with the angel, when his name is changed to Israel, when he finally reunites with his brother Esau and they make amends.

But most haven’t given much thought to the line in the parshah that reads, “Jacob became very frightened and was distressed (Bereishit 32:8).” It seems like a valid response when Jacob hears that his brother, who he stole the birthright from, is coming to meet Jacob with 400 of his men. But if we look at it more closely, it is strange that both “frightened” and “distressed” are used to describe how Jacob feels — These words are synonyms.

In the commentary, it is written that Jacob felt frightened because he knew that he might be killed, and that he was distressed because he might have to kill Esau.

We have watched these past weeks as protests have turned violent in response to what has happened in Ferguson, in New York, and in other places. There’s an important message in this line from Vayishlach that can teach us about responding to violence in the world without compromising our own humanity. There are times when we face legitimate threats to our safety and Judaism teaches us that we have a right to self-defense. But Judaism also teaches us that there are restrictions on just how far we can go in the name of self-defense. We are supposed to defend ourselves with the least amount of violence possible. We are taught how to fight evil without becoming evil ourselves.

Thankfully, Jacob didn’t have to kill his brother. Esau was not looking to get revenge on Jacob but had he been, from everything we know about Jacob, I am sure that Jacob would have only resorted to violence as a final option. As college students, we are a major demographic taking part in these protests across the nation. As young people, we should stand up to make our future a better, safer place to live; As Jews, we should stand up for those who are being persecuted just as we have been. But because of who we are, Vayishlach teaches us that we have a moral obligation to lead by example and fight violence with words, with real action, without more violence.

(Presented by Rachel Goodman at last Shabbbat's dinner speech).

Rachel Goodman is a sophomore majoring in journalism.


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