If you have one, take a dollar out of your pocket and flip it over to the side without George Washington. On the left you’ll find a pyramid with an all-seeing eye, a very mystical symbol that has spurred many conspiracy theories with American enchantment. On the right is a much more prosaic symbol – bald eagle clasping olive branches in one talon and clutching arrows in the other. The arrows represent might and power; the olive branch, a biblical symbol from the story of Noah, represents peace and diplomacy. In the eagle’s mouth is a ribbon upon which the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum is written. This phrase means “unity out of many,” or “from many, one” It was proposed by a committee of founders in 1776 and adopted by Congress in 1782. It is an aspirational expression. America is a bold experiment made of different states, cultures and peoples from all over the world. From our very beginning, the American project was transformative, finding a form of unity while understanding the diversity of its people.
There have been many periods where the feeling of unity feels absent in the American mind, now perhaps as much as ever. We are all going through what the author Bill Bishop terms “The big sort.” Americans are increasingly clustering in communities of like-minded people, surrounding ourselves only with people who think alike and act alike. As such we are becoming a divided nation from everything from politics to music, from churches (and synagogues) to sports. And as other commentators have pointed out, with the increased homogeneity of social groups, enmity increases. It could seem that the Latin has it wrong, and that it feels to many of us that we are moving from one to many.
It’s not just partisans and pundits that seek to drive us apart for political or monetary gain (although we should ask ourselves who is making money off our mutual anger), but I believe there is something deeper happening within ourselves that drives us from our friends, our coworkers, and even from our families.
There is something deep inside of us that is searching for relief. Whether it’s freedom from our depression or addiction, freedom from monetary constraints or an abusive partner, freedom from worrying about our children or worrying about our home, freedom from the oppression upon our characters and identities – all these drives to escape come from a single place.
Fears are founded in reality, especially if they are physical to our being and psychological to our souls. The fear we feel all the time is what keeps us alive, but it also keeps us from reaching beyond ourselves. So much of our politics is angled towards grievance, for what someone else is doing that is wrong, that makes us rage, and feels as a total negation of who we are. Our response is to erase that feeling, often by trying to erase those that cause that feeling. That’s how we end up in the zero-sum politics of “winner takes all,” of pressing every advantage, and of the erasure of voices. When fear is the driver, we drive ourselves away from each other.
This idea is certainly true of Jacob, found in this week’s Torah portion Vayetze. We find Jacob on the move, heading back to his homestead after nearly two decades away working for his father-in-law. Jacob left his home as a child under terrible circumstances, in fear for his life from his brother Esau. Now he is returning, and Jacob is understandably afraid. As fear overtakes him, Jacob divides his caravan into many groups, ensuring that if Esau’s troops overtake them, some will survive. In what can only be described as a literary masterpiece, Jacob keeps dividing and dividing until he is left alone on the banks of the Jabbok river as the sun sets.
In the dark, Jacob had nothing – no people, no family, no possessions – he was truly alone perhaps for the first time in his life. (Genesis 32:25) There Jacob wrestled with “a man,” until the breaking of the dawn. Only after the fight did Jacob receive a blessing from the angel, and the very next moment he saw his brother Esau approaching.
It’s hard to say what happened that night on the river’s edge; the text is rather opaque. What we know is that the angel’s blessing changed Jacob forever. In the Bible, the changing of one’s name is akin to changing one’s fate. The name Jacob means “heel” or “follower,” a reference to his younger status and Jacob’s locus of control being how he reacts to others in the world. The identity of Jacob the boy was a trickster, driven by fear. The new identity of Israel is different, defining him as a man whose first relationship is with God, giving him the strength to be a leader, differentiated from his brother, and thus able to confront him without fear. The wrestling inside of Jacob reorientated him away from his fear of his legitimacy and inadequacy to be finally prepared to encounter his brother.
What Jacob did is what we all must do in this moment. If we ever want to reconcile, we must first fight the fear inside ourselves, locking it up and turning it into a blessing of peace.
Peace is the antidote to fear. In Hebrew it is shalom, sharing the same root letters as shalem, meaning wholeness. What shalom does not mean, however, is unity. To be at peace with someone, especially ourselves, is not to be unified. There are times in our lives where we feel besieged by our own inadequacies, afraid of the future and perhaps a little afraid of what we might be capable of. But to be at peace is to not let fear be the driver. To quote the Book of Micah, peace is “for each person to sit under their own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” (Micah 4:4)
Like Jacob, God, in the book of Job, transforms fear into peace: “Dominion and fear are with God, who makes peace in the heavens.” (Job 25:2) The Rabbis see in this line two of the most extraordinary tasks. The first is the transmutation of fear and power into the angels Michael and Gabriel, God’s agents of peace. (Bahiya Shemot 9:14) Just as God performs the sacred alchemy of turning fear and power into peace, so do Jews every Friday night. As we stand around our Shabbat tables, we welcome the very same angels into our homes, calling upon them to bless us. When we sing the words of “shalom aleichem” we welcome these “ministering angels” and when they leave they become “angels of peace.”
The second godly task is that when God makes peace in the heavens, God is not trying to homogenize the world. The Rabbis relate that God takes the fire of lightning and combines it with the water of the rain forming a thunderstorm. (Rashi Job 25:2) It’s hard to think of a thunderstorm as peaceful, but to God, peace means wholeness, not exclusivity. Peace means coexistence; the close thunderous relationship of polar opposites is the very definition of peace.
If God can combine fire and water, then Jacob need not fear that to be in a relationship with Esau he needs to hide his identity as he did when he was younger. Jacob can be Jacob and Esau can be Esau and they can live in peace together. This indeed happens. When Esau saw Jacob the next morning, he ran to him, they embraced and cried over each other, at one point Esau saying, “seeing you is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:4, 10)
If we are ever to reconcile as a country, we must first shed our fear and search for peace. Total unity might not be possible, but relationships, free of fear and respect for each other, can bring us to a place of peace. Not out of many, one – but out of many, peace.