Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"
In one of his most famous addresses, President Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
But sometimes a household needs to be divided in order to survive. And that is the case this week, as millions of Americans are heeding the advice of experts and staying separate on this holiday. It’s excruciating for many, though not a difficult choice when faced with the alternative of placing loved ones (and total strangers) in grave danger. On Thanksgiving day, my family will be Zooming with relatives from coast to coast, having canceled some travel plans, but knowing that there is now officially light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of vaccines.
This is not the first time when household division made everyone safer. This week’s Torah portion of Vayetze details the comings and goings (really the goings and comings) of Jacob and has family. The return, which is completed in next week’s portion of Vayishlach, brings Jacob face to face with a potential massacre of his family at the hands of his brother Esau, who came toward him with an army of 400.
Jacob’s plan is to shower Esau with gifts, but he devises a back up strategy if that stimulus doesn’t work. He divides his camp into two. That way, if one side is attacked by Esau’s viral anger, at least the other half of Jacob’s family will survive. It is the first case of family social distancing on record.
As Jacob bids farewell to half his family, and with the existential threat on his doorstep, he utters one of the most heartfelt prayers of the entire Torah in Genesis 32: Katonti mikol hahasadim u’mikol ha’emet….
As you read this, listen to these words rendered into beautiful contemporary Israeli songs. Here are two versions:
Katonti – HaZamir 2019 Gala Concert
Listen to these songs and reflect on these verses as you sit down for your real and virtual Thanksgiving dinner. The fear of Jacob is reflected in our own. The patriarch realizes how small he is, how ill-equipped to defeat this foe. Ramban finds a prophetic quote to back up this feeling of futility: “How will Jacob survive, as he is so small” (Amos 7:2).
The greatest danger to us as we face this overwhelming third wave of Covid is a sense that we fool ourselves into thinking that we really understand this disease, that we’ve been here before. But we have not. While March and April were bad in the NY area, where I live, Americans have never seen the entire country afflicted with such overwhelming force at the same time.
Complacency and Covid fatigue are dangerous, but the gravest danger of all is a false sense of control. Masks and outdoor ventilation are helpful, we now know, but they are not foolproof. Today, in order to protect ourselves, many families will voluntarily stay apart. In the Torah, Jacob shows us that such a decision requires a selfless humility that can help us to confront enemies seen and unseen. Covid may be microscopic and microbial, but we are the ones who are small.
Which is why we need to split our families apart. Right now, as with Jacob and sons – and wives and daughter, and lots of sheep – a house divided is the house that will stand.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is author, most recently, of “Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously” (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020)