Fight, Flight, Freeze or Embrace

American physiologist Walter Cannon (1871-1945) coined the term Fight or Flight after discovering that an unconscious series of fast-acting reactions occurred inside the body to help provide resources needed to manage threatening circumstances. Trauma and stress cause us to react in different ways and while these are automatic responses, we also have the opportunity to choose how we want to respond after our initial reaction.

In Parshat Vayishlach, our father Jacob is confronted by his brother Esau who is enroute with 400 generals to kill him. While Jacob is indeed frightened, he responds by mobilizing his camp to prepare for the encounter in three ways: prayer, prepare for war, and embrace the enemy with a present. I know what you must be thinking…really, a present?

                                                                                                                                                Genesis 32:9 Rashi

והיה המחנה הנשאר לפליטה. עַל כָּרְחוֹ, כִּי אֶלָּחֵם עִמּוֹ. הִתְקִין עַצְמוֹ לִשְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים, לְדוֹרוֹן, לִתְפִלָּה וּלְמִלְחָמָה. לְדוֹרוֹן, וַתַּעֲבֹר הַמִּנְחָה עַל פָּנָיו; לִתְפִלָּה, אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם; לְמִלְחָמָה, וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה:

Jacob prepared himself for three things: to give him a present — as it states (Genesis 32:22) “So, the present passed before him”; for prayer — as it states (Genesis 32:10), “And he said, ‘O God of my father Abraham”; for war — as it states in this verse, “then the remaining camp may escape,” for I will fight against him.

Despite Esau’s plans to wage war against his brother, the gift Jacob offered so touched Esau, that he was assuaged, and they made peace. Incredible! Our sages remark that this scene is a harbinger of the Messianic era when the Israelites, the descendants of Jacob, will be at peace with all nations of the world. They will even be able to attend the World Cup without incident.

Relationships as a rule beget conflicts. Whether it be with a spouse, sibling, friend, work colleague, or neighbor, it is rare that relationships exist conflict free. How do we handle conflict when it arises?

Some simply disengage from the relationship, in effect canceling it. Some ignore it until it can’t be avoided any longer, and others will continuously engage with the conflict until resolution emerges…Fight or Flight.

Our Parshah is presenting to us a different way to address conflict - embrace. Embrace the relationship behind the conflict. Recognize that the relationship is much bigger and more important than the conflict at hand. Embrace the person behind the conflict, and the conflict will melt away.

Genesis 33:4

וַיָּ֨רׇץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.

We can all look forward to when there will be no more conflict in the world between all peoples.  In the meantime, we can learn from Jacob how to address our own individual conflicts - not by avoiding, or fighting, but by embracing the person behind the conflict and reminding one another of the importance of your relationship.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ephraim Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence
Jewish Federation in Southern New Jersey