Conscience: A Jewish Invention
Hitler once said that the conscience is a Jewish invention. He was right. It was Judaism which brought to the world the notion that we all possess universal and inherent dignity on account of our divine image, and it is the Torah which commands us to heed our responsibility to those more vulnerable than we are (code words: the stranger – whom the Torah commands us to love as we love ourselves, the widow and the orphan).
That’s why Nietzsche, modernity’s leading atheistic thinker insisted that Jews possess “the moral genius” amongst the nations, and that’s what Catholic historian Paul Johnson had in mind, when he observed that Judaism is responsible for the constitution of “the basic moral furniture of the human mind.”
In our parshah, Jacob exemplifies the pervasive place of conscience in our faith. As Jacob learns that Esau is approaching him with some 400 armed men, he becomes “afraid and distressed.” What is the difference between being afraid and being distressed, asks Rashi?
Rashi explains that Jacob was afraid for his life, and for the safety of those whom he loves, but he was also distressed about the prospect of taking a human life himself, of inflicting causalities upon the enemy.
In 1975, a year before he died, Yoni Netanyahu, one of Israel’s best known military heroes, wrote a riveting letter to his girlfriend, in which he describes the mental anguish caused to him by the necessity to take a life in order to preserve the one and only Jewish state in post-genocidal Judaism. He tells his girlfriend that he had occasion throughout his military career to sometimes confront terrorists head on and face to face, and that killing from such close range “adds a whole new dimension of sadness to a man’s life.” Compare that to the jubilant ecstatic joy of some of Israel’s enemies, once they learn of civilian fatalities in Israel.
When the IDF engages in warfare with Hamas, the Israeli Air Force drops leaflets from the sky, urging civilians to leave and vacate the area. The IDF also makes phone calls to these residents, and implores them to leave. What other army in the world does this? Only the Jewish army. Why? Because we are the children of Israel, the spiritual descendants of Jacob who, as our parshah says, became “distressed” by the prospect of taking the enemy’s life, even in justifiable warfare.
It’s not that killing in order to nationally survive is not the right thing to do, teaches the Torah, it is that we should not be trigger-happy or jubilant about it, G-d forbid. As the Mishnah teaches us: “When your enemy falters, do not rejoice.”
No Jewish historical figure better epitomized Jacob’s distress in our parshah about the prospect of killing one’s mortal enemy, than former Prime Minister Golda Meir, when she said: “When peace comes we will perhaps…forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”