הלכה שעשו שונא ליעקב: Do All Non-Jews Really Hate Us?

This past weekend, I along with many other Americans celebrated Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is a time to express thanks for both what and who. It is a time when we express gratitude for the what – for the blessings that we have, and for the who – the individuals who have given us these blessings, many of whom we may take for granted.  But here is my theological struggle. There is a famous Rashi in this past week’s Parsha, הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב, it’s a known law that Esav hates Yaakov, which has been interpreted by many to mean that the non-Jew hates the Jew. What does this mean to me?  Should I not be thankful to the local police officer, or medical professional or garbage man if he is not Jewish, because the non-Jew has always, currently does and will always hate the Jew? Is this true? We have all been reading about the rising anti-semitism in America, in Europe and throughout the world.  Should we simply assert that it is part of the non-Jewish DNA to hate us?

Indeed, in response to a question of whether to sue the British government at the European Court for Human Rights in the early 1970s, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:77) wrote that he was concerned that this may cause more harm to the Jews:

’כי צריך לידע שהשנאה לישראל מכל האומות היא גדולה גם ממלכיות שנוהגין בטובה, וכבר אמרתי על הלשון שהביא רש”י בפירוש החומש… על קרא דוישקהו אמר רשב”י הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב דמה שייך זה להלכה, דהוא כמו שהלכה לא משתנית כך שנאת עשו ליעקב לא משתנית דאף אלו שנוהגות באופן טוב שנאתן גדולה בעצם,׳

“for we have to realize that hatred of the Jews by all nations is actually great, even in the nations that behave well [toward Jews].  I have already explained concerning Rashi’s language in his Torah commentary… on the word וישקהו: Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai says: “It is a well-known halacha that Esav hates Yaakov. And why is the word halacha relevant here?  It is because just as halacha never changes, so also Esav’s hatred of Yaakov never changes.  Even in those [nations] that behave well [toward Jews], their hatred [of Jews] is actually strong.”

This line from Rashi, stating that it’s a law that Esav hates Yaakov, is taken from the opinion of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Sifri in explaining why there are dots over the word וישקהו, “and he kissed him,” referring to Esav’s kiss of Yaakov.  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai stated that it’s known that Esav hates Yaakov so why did he kiss him? His mercy was aroused at that moment and he kissed him with all his heart.

However, we need not interpret this story in this manner, that Esav is Rome, then the Holy Roman Empire and then Western civilization in its entirety and they all hate us.  Taking a different approach, the Netziv writes that the story teaches us that:

׳גם יעקב נתעורר עליו לשעה זו אהבה לעשו. וכן לדורות בשעה שזרע עשו מתעוררים ברוח טהרה להכיר את זרע ישראל ומעלתם, אז גם אנחנו מתעוררים להכיר את עשו כי אחינו הוא, וכמו שרבי היה אוהב אמתי לאנטונינוס׳

“At that moment love for Esav awakened in Yaakov as well. Similarly, whenever Esav’s descendants genuinely acknowledge Yisrael’s greatness, Yisrael reciprocates with feelings of brotherhood.”

The Netziv, who does believe that this story provides a lesson for us about dealing with non-Jews, explicitly states that descendants of Esav are not always bad.  They sometimes may exhibit hatred towards us but at other times they may not and in those cases, we are not to suspect them of trying to harm us; rather, we should embrace them.  Either the Netziv explicitly rejects the notion that הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב or that this statement means that all non-Jews hate us.

Furthermore, maybe all Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was saying was that Esav the person hated Yaakov the person, but Yaakov was able to arouse feelings of mercy in Esav through Yaakov’s humility.  Maybe Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was not addressing Esav the nation, just Esav the person. In fact, a number of scholars have asserted that the word הלכה is a scribal error, and the real word was הלא and therefore, Rabbi Shimon’s statement should read הלא היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב, which further reinforces the idea that his statement was referring to Esav the person and not Esav the nation.  (In fact, a Bar-Ilan Responsa search of this term has the text of הלא and not הלכה in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni.)

On this subject, in a work entitled Teshuvot Ivra (#116), Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin has written:

׳ועוון פלילי מצד אותם המטיפים הפטפטנים שדורשים תמיד ‘הלכה הוא שעשו שונא ליעקב’, והשנאה עולמית. זה נגד האמת ונגד חז”ל והמקרא, שעשו גופא לא הי’ רשע תמיד ושנאתו פסקה על ידי הנהגה מתאמת וכמו עשו הראשון כן הם ג”כ דורותיו שהכנעה מביאה לשלום, וזהו שאמר בן זומא (אבות פ”ד מ”א) ‘איזהו מכובד המכבד את הבריות’, כונתו גם נגד האומות, כשמכבדים אותם ואומרים להם אוהבי אתה הם נעשים לאוהבים על ידי זה ולהפך כשאומרים שונא אתה נעשים לשונא וזהו מעשים בכל יום׳

“It’s criminal those who constantly chatter and expound that it is a halacha that Esav hates Yaakov and the hatred is eternal – this is against the truth, against our Sages and the Torah, for Esav himself was not always a wicked person and his hatred stopped after appropriate behavior.  Just like with regard to the first Esav, so, too, with regard to his generations, humility leads to peace. This is what Ben Zoma says, “Who is honored? One who honors created beings.” The intent of this is also for the other nations. When we honor them and say to them you are my friend then they become friendly [to us].  The opposite is also true. When we say that we hate them, then they become hateful [to us] and this happens all the time.”

Does anti-semitism exist?  Yes.  Is anti-semitism currently on the rise?  Likely. Is anti-semitism illogical? It seems so.  Is there a tradition that הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב and that it means that all non-Jews hate Jews?  Yes.

However, I choose to follow a different legitimate reading of this midrash, whether or not there was a scribal error, that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s statement may have only referred to the relationship between Yaakov and Esav.  For me,  perhaps the lesson of this statement is that humbling ourselves in front of an adversary can lead to peace, which is a very important message about our efforts to achieve peace.  To say that every non-Jew is anti-semitic is not my reality as I experience it and I don’t feel that there is a compelling argument from our mesorah to assume the worst about all non-Jews, despite the history of anti-semitism.  Additionally, I am concerned that for me to not say thank you wholeheartedly and appreciate those who do something positive to me will turn me into an ungrateful person, an unappreciative person and an overly suspicious person.  Frankly, that is not someone that I want to be. Therefore, despite the rise in anti-semitism in our country and worldwide, I choose to follow the tradition of the Netziv and Rav Henkin. I choose to be thankful on Thanksgiving for everything and to everyone, Jew and non-Jew.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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