“It feels like another Holocaust is coming,” my 14-year-old daughter said at Shabbat dinner last week.
“No, it can’t happen here,” a guest replied. “Not now. There are too many people who would stand up against it,” he assured her. Perhaps he was right. I don’t know. I was glad for his response regardless, as I was heartbroken and stunned into silence, and I could not immediately respond myself.
Dumbstruck. That is how I find myself feeling frequently of late. What can you say to your child who genuinely worries that the country she has grown up in may soon turn against her? How do you explain the absurdity that manifests itself daily in the news? How often can you read a headline and double check the source to assure yourself you haven’t accidentally stumbled onto The Onion or The Babylon Bee?!
I gathered myself at the Shabbat table and took my daughter’s hand. It is scary, I admitted to her. Scary that we once again find ourselves in a time when lunacy is tolerated and given air-time, rather than summarily dismissed and relegated to the extreme fringes where it belongs. Scary that both the xenophobic far right and the anarchic far left are finding common ground in their antisemitic bile. Scary that we live in an age when social media provides a powerful megaphone to those who don’t deserve it, where masses of the uninformed are unduly influenced by artists, athletes, or agitators who feel it is their right and duty to air their deepest neuroses.
It’s normal to feel anxious in such an environment, I tell my daughter. It’s good to talk about it. It’s important to give voice to your fears rather than suppressing them and allowing them to fester. It’s vital to commune with your loved ones, to pray with your community, to warn those around you that we are wading into dangerous waters.
Do I believe there will be a Holocaust here in America? I don’t. Not because we as a nation are incapable of falling down the same rabbit holes that the Germans did. Not because we have learned and internalized history’s lessons to the extent that we are unlikely to repeat the dreadful mistakes of the past. Not because we have evolved as a species and are beyond the atrocities of generations past.
I don’t believe that a Holocaust will recur because I am a man of faith. I cannot believe that God would allow that to happen to us again (though of course I would not have believed it the first time). I don’t believe that, knowing what we know now, we would once again allow ourselves to be led to slaughter. I do believe that the State of Israel provides us a strength and protection that would preclude any such widespread Jewish devastation.
Yet faith is not a strategy. It is imperative, and it is reassuring, but it is not the sum total of our responsibility. We learn this from this week’s Torah reading, Vayishlach. Approaching his brother Esau and the 400 soldiers who accompany him, Jacob enacts a three-prong game plan to protect himself and his family. First, he sends gifts ahead to try to assuage his brother’s rage. Second, he divides his cohort into multiple camps so that in the event that one is attacked, the others might escape. And third, he prays to Hashem for His protection and salvation. Faith, we thus see, is only one aspect of the strategy we must pursue as danger looms. We must also engage in diplomacy, and if that fails, we must be ready for battle.
In the meantime, as we begin to consider the degree of risk that we face at the moment, as well as how or when we may need to implement these various facets of our protection strategy, there is another vital lesson that Parshas Vayishlach teaches us about how to address the age-old issue of antisemitism and how to maintain peace with our non-Jewish neighbors.
The night before he is to encounter Esau, Jacob remains behind in the camp after moving his wives, his children, and his possessions across the stream. “Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn” (Genesis 32:25). This wrestling match with the angel is one of the most famed biblical narratives. It is a pivotal moment in the history of the Jewish nation, as it is at this moment that Jacob becomes Israel, renamed by the angel because “you have struggled with God and with men and you have been victorious” (Genesis 32:29). Yet so many aspects of the story are cryptic and unclear. Who was this “man (who) wrestled with him until dawn?” What does this wrestling match represent and why did it immediately precede Jacob’s confrontation with his brother? What is the eternal lesson for Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, and why was this story so relevant to the name with which we would be identified as a people throughout history?
The classical commentators provide multiple interpretations of this narrative. The most common explanation, as Rashi expounds, is that Jacob’s opponent was Esau’s guardian angel. Yet the Zohar and Midrash suggest that this unidentified spiritual adversary was not his brother’s angel, but rather that it was Jacob himself with whom he had to wrestle. Rabbi YY Jacobson suggests that this is implicit in the above quoted verse which states “Jacob remained alone.” If he was alone, then it was only himself with whom he struggled. Furthermore, Rabbi Jacobson asserts, it is only when we are alone that we can face ourselves fully.
What is the implication of Jacob’s wrestling match with himself? Throughout his life until that moment, Jacob was defined by his relationship, and his ongoing rivalry, with his brother. His very name, Yaacov in Hebrew, is derived from the word “ekev/heel,” because he came out of the womb grasping the heel of his twin. Years later he would dress in his brother’s clothes and assume his identity in order to trick his father into granting him the blessings of the firstborn. Esau was a wild and sinful man, and Jacob was instructed by his mother Rebecca to usurp the blessing because she knew that Esau was not capable of stewarding such holiness. Yet regardless of the validity and righteousness of his claims against his brother, the fact remains that Jacob had always been trying to be Esau in a sense, to have what Esau had, to grab his heel, to appropriate his blessings.
In such a dynamic of conflict and competition, Esau will always despise his brother. When will this rivalry end? When Jacob confronts his own internal struggle and comes to terms with who he truly is. This is precisely what happens the night before the brothers meet. Jacob wrestles with his innermost self and realizes that he is no longer Yaacov, the one who is grabbing at his brother’s heel, but rather he is Yisrael, a prince of God who can overcome even his own darkest inclinations. Once he conquers his ego and claims his own infinite identity, Jacob is then able to go on and transcend the battle with Esau completely. As soon as Esau sees that Jacob no longer desires what is his, “he ran toward him, hugged him, fell on his shoulders and kissed him, and they both wept” (Genesis 33:5). Esau finally respects and admires his brother, because Jacob finally knows and respects himself.
The lesson for us is clear, I tell my daughter. The times may be alarming, and the news may be disturbing. We need to be vigilant, and we need to do everything in our power to push back against the tide of antisemitism that is beginning to swell. But most importantly, we need to be Yisrael, to know who we are and why we are here. We will not be accepted or respected by Esau when we try to assimilate and to emulate his material greed and carnal passion. On the contrary, it is when we express the Godliness within us that we thereby elicit the Godliness that is within all of God’s creations.
When we do so, all of us together, we will no longer need to fear. We will no longer be dumbstruck or heartbroken, and it will be unnecessary to reassure our children that there will be no future Holocaust.