In this week’s reading, the brothers, Jacob and Esau, meet again after a separation of twenty two years. Years before, Esau had sworn to kill Jacob in revenge for what he saw as the theft of his blessing. Is he still angry enough to kill? Jacob sends messengers to let his brother know he is coming. On their return, they inform Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. We then read:
Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. (32:8)
Jacob is in the grip of strong emotions. But what is the difference between fear and distress? Could it be that he was in fear of being killed? And distressed that he might have to kill his own brother in self-defense?
The difference between being afraid and distressed is that it is one thing to fear one’s own death, quite another to contemplate being the cause of someone else’s. Jacob was distressed at the possibility of being forced to kill even if that were entirely justified by the concept of self-defense..
At stake is a moral dilemma. A dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. May we perform an abortion to save the life of the mother, for example? When two duties conflict the higher value, once determined, takes priority. An answer is forthcoming.
A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer. 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. The fact that one principle (self-defense) overrides another (the prohibition against killing) does not mean that, faced with such a choice, I am without inner qualms. Sometimes being moral means that I experience distress at finding myself in the position to even make such a choice. Doing the right thing may mean that I do not feel guilt, but I may still feel regret that I had to do what I did at all.
A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the human life. In a conflict between two rights or two wrongs, there may be a proper way to act but this does not cancel out all emotional pain. It is indicative of Jacob’s greatness that he was capable of moral anxiety even at the prospect of doing something entirely justified, namely defending his own life at the cost of his brother’s. A person or a nation capable of feeling distress, even in victory, is one that knows the tragic complexity of moral life.
In Tune with Torah this week = in the complicated times of life, are we the kind of people who seek to choose the higher ground and establish priorities while maintaining a sincere love towards our fellow man? Imagine yourself in Jacob’s shoes. How would you have felt?