In Rocky III, the once down and out fighter, Rocky Balboa, who miraculously became Heavyweight Champion of the World, breaks down before his rematch with Clubber Lang and with an anguished cry admits to his wife Adrian, “I’m afraid.”
“When I had nothing,” he continues, “I didn’t care if I got beat or cut up, I had nothing to lose. Now, I’ve got you, I’ve got the kid, and I don’t want to lose what I got. I’m afraid.”
In this week’s Torah portion as he crosses the River Jabbok. Jacob also admits, “I’m afraid.”
He recalls that with his staff alone he came to the land of Aram. Now, twenty years later he has a large family and vast livestock holdings. He knows he has twice cheated his brother Esau, who is marching toward him with a regiment of 400 men. Like Rocky Jacob, who left home with nothing proclaims in effect, “I don’t want to lose what I got. I’m afraid.”
I am afraid too. One of the things that helps me push aside my fears for the world in which we live is to correspond with adults who studied with me for Bar or Bat Mitzvah. When I wish a former student a happy birthday on Facebook, I often end my message with, “Now Tell me what your Torah portion was about.”
Thank you Elaina
The latest response I received from Attorney Elaina Cohen Werner warmed my heart. About her Torah portion from nearly 40 years ago, she wrote: “When Jacob wrestles with the angel and becomes Israel (“one who struggles with God.”) But really it was an internal struggle to step up and become the best version of himself.” And then she added to my delight, “We just celebrated my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah 2 ½ weeks ago.
In “Rabbi-land,” ladies and gentlemen, it does not get any better than that
Nevertheless, the “nachas” I received from Elaina’s note, could not change the fact that like Jacob in tonight’s Torah reading, and like the fictional Rocky Balboa, I too admit, “I’m afraid.” I am afraid for the direction of our country. I am afraid for the breakdown of barriers and limits. I am afraid for the impact of the internet that allows anyone to make any proclamation, promote any cause, spew out racism and antisemitism and use any imagery to broadcast those hateful ideas instantly around the world.
Yes, I’m afraid.
I like to think – some would say naively – that Jacob’s fear was not just for his physical safety. But for the knowledge that he had cheated his brother so brazenly and worried he could not earn forgiveness.
In his own words, during the twenty years Jacob served Laban, scorching heat ravished him by day and frost by night frost by night. Long sleepless nights were normal for him. Those twenty difficult years gave Jacob ample time to realize how grievously he had wronged his brother Esau.
After a titanic struggle, a struggle as Elaina Cohen Werner noted, was really an internal struggle to step up and become the best version of himself, Jacob resolves that come what may he will do all he can to make things right with his brother.
And as Yisrael, he does just that. He responds to his fear of “losing what he’s got” by giving much of it to his brother. The size of the gift Jacob sends to Esau in Chapter 32 of Genesis is enormously generous. He is paying back with interest the value of the birthright he extorted for a mess of pottage.
Transforming from self-centered Jacob to magnanimous Yisrael was not easy.
Nevertheless, his struggle is one we all can and should model. If we are willing, we can all face the reality that there is a gap between who we are and the best selves we can be.
It is a struggle our country also does well to model, but I am afraid we are not, in Elaina’s words, “stepping up.”.
Representative Paul Gosar
This week, for only the 24th time in the history of the United States, Congress voted to censure one of their own.
This week, the House of Representatives voted to strip Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona of his committee assignments because he posted an anime video showing him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and physically attacking President Joe Biden.
Censuring him to me was clearly the right decision. So why am I afraid? I am afraid because with two exceptions the censor vote divided along party lines.
.To me, this is not a question of party loyalty. It is a moral issue. It is not a question of politics or party allegiance. It is a simple question of right and wrong.
And make no mistake. What Rep. Gosar did has nothing to do with free speech.
Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States more than 100 years ago (1919) established an important standard when he proscribed, “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic,” is not protected free speech.
In March of 1978, the Washington Post published an op ed in which I argued Nazis marching through Skokie, Illinois, a community populated by many Holocaust survivors, should not fall under the rubric of protected free speech because it presented a clear and present danger, akin to shouting “fire” in a theatre to the health and well-being of many Skokie residents.
Incitement to physical or emotional violence cannot be protected speech. And that is what Gosar’s anime might well have done.
But it is all too easy for us to point our finger of moral outrage at Washington or at other political hotspots around the world. We must also point it at ourselves. Like Jacob we must continue to struggle with our own moral compass.
Almost every day offers us opportunities to help someone or to turn a blind eye, to become the Yisrael of this week’s Torah portion or to remain the self-centered Jacob we met two weeks ago.
Tipping extra is one way to help food servers whose earning power suffered enormously during the pandemic. Do we want to get out of the restaurant with the least damage to our checkbook? Or do we allow our hearts to open to the hungry child waiting at home and hoping his waitress-mother will be able to put food on the table or maybe – if he is fortunate — buy him something for Christmas?
Being Alert to Mitzvah opportunities
A few days ago, in a drug store, a sad-looking older woman ahead of me in the checkout line was putting a few supplies including a small cake on the counter. My heart broke as she said to the clerk, “It’s my birthday, but I am celebrating alone.” Quickly, I pulled out my credit card and told her, “Happy birthday! Please let me help you celebrate,” And to the clerk, I said, “Please put her items on my card.”
In this instance, I had no reason to be afraid. By giving, like Jacob turned Yisrael, I gained. The woman could not stop thanking me. For $11.95, I made someone’s day.
To be sure this was no great act of heroism. All it took was being alert to the opportunity to make a small difference in someone’s life.
As Thanksgiving approaches, let us put the emphasis on the last two syllables: Giving.
After 20 years of anguish and one particularly horrific night, Jacob earned the name Yisrael,” One who struggles with God.” It is a title that we as a nation, we as individuals, and we as Jews must still strive continually to earn.