After Paris: Trying to respond on an individual level
One central theme of the Sidra of Vayeitzei is the conflict between Jacob and Laban. Laban represents our enemies. After the terrorist attacks in Gush Etzion and Tel Aviv on Thursday and in Paris last Friday night, we have again been reminded that the world is witnessing not just atrocities against Jews but a struggle between civilization and brutality, good and evil, Jacob and Laban.
Laban doesn’t seem so bad in the biblical text but as we read in the Haggadah, he was worse than Pharaoh – Lavan bikesh la’akor et hakol. Laban’s aim was utter, indiscriminate destruction of the sort carried out in Paris and in other extreme Islamist attacks.
Yet again we have been reminded of the fragility and preciousness of life. On Chanukah we will please God say the blessing shehechiyanu, but only on the first night, whereas the other blessings over lighting the candles are recited on each night of the festival. Why is shehechiyanu recited only on the first night? Because it is a blessing thanking God simply for keeping us alive to reach another festival. Life is a precious gift not to be taken for granted.
Like many others, I have political views on responding to Paris, but as a rabbi I want to try and suggest a personal, religious response that may speak to some people as a way of responding to these terrible events on an individual level.
Jacob dreams of a ladder and of angels of God olim veyordim bo – going up and down the ladder. Why are the angels going up and down? Some suggest a beautiful answer. The angels are comparing the actual Jacob with the ideal, paradigm one in heaven. In my first year as a philosophy undergraduate, we studied Plato’s Theory of Forms – the idea that things have an ideal and more real version in another, metaphysical world. Every table on earth, for example, is a kind of instance of and approximates imperfectly to the paradigmatic Table in the World of the Forms.
Somewhat similarly, the idea here is that for each of us, each human being, there is the actual version of us here on earth and the ideal, paradigm version in heaven who has fulfilled his or her maximum potential. The angels discover that the earthly Jacob is a perfect match with the heavenly one. Hence in the Sidra of Vayigash, Jacob is one of only four people in the Bible whom God calls by name twice in immediate succession– “Yaakov Yaakov”. The others are Abraham – “Avraham Avraham” at the Akedah, Moses –“Moshe Moshe” at the Burning Bush, and Samuel as a young person – “Shmuel Shmuel”. In each case, God indicates by immediate repetition of the name that the actual and paradigm versions of that individual are identical.
If we strive towards being our paradigm selves, using God’s gift of life for the best it can be, perhaps that is a worthwhile individual response to Paris.