Rob Scheinberg

Jacob and Esau, Itamar and the Rabbit, and mutual fear

The simplicity of a children's book reminds us that fearing each other makes the world more dangerous
Illustrative: Cover photo from David Grossman's children's book, Itamar Meets a Rabbit (in Hebrew: Itamar pogesh arnav).
Illustrative: Cover photo from David Grossman's children's book, Itamar Meets a Rabbit (in Hebrew: Itamar pogesh arnav).

Award-winning novelists usually don’t write children’s books unless they feel they have something important to say.

About 25 years ago, the award-winning Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote a children’s book, איתמר פוגש ארנב — “Itamar Meets a Rabbit.” This is what David Grossman has to say.

It’s a story about a boy named Itamar who loves animals of all kinds, except that he is terrified of rabbits. He is so scared of rabbits that he refuses to even look at a picture of a rabbit in a book. He is so scared of rabbits that when he goes to the zoo, he makes his parents warn him when they are approaching the rabbit cage so he can close his eyes. As a result, the only “rabbits” he has ever seen are in his imagination. They are huge and ferocious and they eat children, and they even have teeth on their tails.

Until, one day, Itamar is in the forest and sees an adorable little creature that he has never seen before, and he strikes up a conversation with this animal, at which time he learns two surprising facts: (a) He is speaking with a rabbit, and rabbits are small and cute and nothing like the rabbits in his imagination; (b) When the rabbit finds out that Itamar is a child, the rabbit is terrified because he believes that children are ferocious huge creatures that eat rabbits — and they even have teeth on their tails.

Within the last few years, David Grossman and Israeli musician Yoni Rechter have created a children’s opera based on this beloved story. It is now making the rounds in Israel, and there was even a traveling company performing this children’s opera in the United States in recent years.

The political implications of this story are not hard to see. Itamar and the rabbit fear what they do not know. Their fears fester when they are separated from reality. And when they meet each other, they realize that these fears are unfounded.

The central story of the Torah portion of Vayishlach may have some parallels with the story of Itamar and the rabbit. It is a story about fear. Jacob knows that he cannot return home without in some way confronting his relationship with his estranged brother Esau. He sends messengers to Esau offering a reconciliation — but he then learns that Esau is approaching him with 400 armed men. Jacob is terrified and distressed. Later that night, Jacob has the famous nighttime wrestling encounter with an angel, who gives him the new name “Israel” — “the one who wrestles with God.” Some traditional and contemporary commentators explain this nighttime wrestling story as a manifestation of Jacob’s anxiety as he contemplates the confrontation with his brother. In fact, there is one medieval commentator, Rashbam, who says that the function of the angel is simply — given Jacob’s extreme fear — to keep Jacob from running away, as he has done so frequently in earlier chapters of his story.

But other interpretations suggest that Jacob is so afraid, but he is also ready to use force if necessary. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, the Torah is careful to point out that “Jacob was terrified,” lest he be killed, and “he was also distressed,” lest he be forced to kill others in self-defense, something he was absolutely prepared to do even if he would find it to be troubling.

In this posture of fear and guardedness, Jacob resembles many of us when we approach situations that are unfamiliar or that we expect to be conflicted. Because of our fear, we operate on a hair trigger — not necessarily with a weapon, but with whatever response is available to us, including harsh or angry words and vindictive and irreversible actions.

But now I wonder: maybe the story of Jacob and Esau is a variation on the story of Itamar and the rabbit. Maybe this is actually a story of mutual fear. Why would Esau have come after Jacob with 400 armed men, more than 20 years after his last encounter with his brother? It could be that Esau is still angry, or vindictive, or just wants to pursue fairness and feels that he has been unfairly treated. Or could it also be that Esau regards Jacob with some level of fear, knowing that Jacob has a history of taking advantage of him, and that somehow Esau always emerges from their interactions at a severe disadvantage. Jacob is scared and is ready to kill if necessary — and so is Esau. Actually, they each have good reason to be afraid of the other. We could imagine this story ending tragically as a result, with the two sides fearing and mistrusting each other so much that they stumble into a violent confrontation that neither of them wanted. And seen in this light, it is a most heroic action of both of them to defuse the situation at least enough so they can embrace and exchange best wishes to each other before they proceed on their way.

Being afraid of the other does not provide blanket permission to oppress the other. Tyrants in every generation tended to fear the minority groups that they oppressed, these fears certainly do not mitigate responsibility for the oppression and atrocities that they committed. However, there are also other examples where mutual fear leads to a greater likelihood of violence between people who do not necessarily begin with bad intentions. For example, there are Americans who, based on their prior experience with the police in the United States, are afraid of the police. And there are police officers who, based on their prior experience with particular segments of American society, are afraid of people from those segments of society. Sadly, we have seen how this mutual fear can turn an otherwise peaceful interaction into a tragic confrontation.

In the United States right now, there are any number of people who identify some other segment of American society as being ferocious and threatening. It seems clear that Grossman intended his story of Itamar and the rabbit to be a parable about Israelis and Palestinians, who so often harbor the worst fears about each other. And similarly, there are numerous stories of ethnic conflict around the world. How many of these situations could be understood as tragic stories of mutual fear, like Esau and Jacob? This does not always mean that the two sides are equally at fault. But having our guard up does not always make our world safer. Often fear makes our world more dangerous. And sometimes the way to make our world safer is to encounter the other directly — and to verify that, regardless of what we have imagined, the other does not actually have teeth on his or her tail.

About the Author
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg is the rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, a teacher and musician, and an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Related Topics
Related Posts