Vayishlach: Living With Anti-Semitism

Jacob and Esau meet. Francisco Hayez 1844 (Wikicommons)

It is the oldest kind of hate that never wants to expire. Antisemitism defies all logic. It is the only form of hatred that can exist where the subjects don’t; it crosses continents, socioeconomic status, religious and political affiliations, and rears its ugly face when you least expect it. We saw it this week in the horrible massacre of Jews which took place in Jersey City. What should we do about antisemitism? What can we do about antisemitism? These often asked questions can be answered and understood by the best source on antisemitism: Parashat Vayishlach. Here are ten tips for dealing with antisemitism, based on this week’s Parsha.

Never deny the situation.

As Jacob approaches the land of Israel, he recognizes the danger of Esau’s hate. The reason Jacob left Israel was because he took Esau’s threats seriously. Throughout our history, and most notably in Germany before WWII, Jews did not recognize antisemitism to the extent they should have.

Be Ready to Reconcile 

No matter what happened, always be ready to reconcile. These two principles can be found in this week’s Parsha when Jacob marches towards the land of Israel.

“Jacob sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. And he commanded them, saying, “So shall you say to my master to Esau, ‘Thus said your servant Jacob, “I have sojourned with Laban, and I have tarried until now. And I have acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks, manservants, and maidservants, and I have sent to tell [this] to my master, to find favor in your eyes.’ “(Genesis 32)

Despite the fact that Jacob is the one who had to flee his own home due to threats of violence on the part of Esau, he is always ready to reconcile. He sends his brother gifts, tries to appease him with words, and extends and peaceful hand to his aggravated brother.

It’s Never Going to be Easy

Sometimes when addressing the scourge of antisemitism, we expect it to be a quick fix. Why should people hate us? It makes no sense. We assume that if we address them and talk to them, it will all work out.

“The angels returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother, to Esau, and he is also coming toward you, and four hundred men are with him.”

It is not always easy. No other nation had to lobby, plea, beg, fight, bribe, and bite its lip to survive as the Jewish people have. It is never easy.

Prepare for all Scenarios

My great grandfather, Hans Diestel, attended school in Berlin in 1929. He was as German as one can be. His father had died in World War I fighting for Germany. When he heard a speech by a charismatic young politician named Adolf Hitler, he picked up and left to Shanghai when he could be stationed with his company. Jews must always be prepared for all scenarios.

“Jacob became very frightened and was distressed, so he divided the people who were with him and the flocks and the cattle and the camels into two camps. And he said, “If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will escape.”

Be Thankful and Purposeful

In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “How to Fight Antisemitism”, Bari Weiss, who grew up in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, writes:

“But the Jews did not sustain their magnificent civilization because they were anti-anti-Semites. Our tradition was always renewed by people who made the choice in the face of tragedy that theirs would not be the end of the Jewish story, but the catalyst for writing a new chapter.

The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.”

Ready to encounter Jacob invokes an intense prayer to God, one that reminds him too, what he is all about.

“And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord, Who said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your birthplace, and I will do good to you.’ I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children. And You said, ‘I will surely do good with you, and I will make your seed [as numerous] as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of multitude.'”

When facing antisemitism, we must remember who we are, what we stand for, and why we are fighting for our survival. Survival alone is not enough of a reason. We must articulate and fight for what we stand for.

Thou Shalt Live

It is estimated that in the 1300s, there were just one million Jews around the globe. There have been several times in our history during which our very existence and future, were in question. Be it right after the Holocaust, the destruction of the second Temple, or other times in our history, we have come all too close to extinction.

One of the struggles most resembling the struggle between the Jewish people and our enemies is the struggle between Jacob and Esau’s angel.

“And he [Jacob] took them and brought them across the stream, and he took across what was his. And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him.

How many times have the Jewish people been attacked not for the sake of victory, but like in this wrestling match “When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip”. Those who sought to fight us, did so merely to inflict pain. Yet even after that:

And he (the angel) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he (Jacob) said, “I will not let you go unless you have blessed me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.” And Jacob asked and said, “Now tell me your name,” and he said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,] “I saw an angel face to face, and my soul was saved.” And the sun rose for him when he passed Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. Therefore, the children of Israel may not eat the displaced tendon, which is on the socket of the hip, until this day, for he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip, in the hip sinew. (Genesis 32)

Astonishing. After trying to harm us, seeking a blessing. Sounds familiar? This particular story seems so familiar from so many times in our history.

Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (1194–1270) who spent much of his life in Girona and Catalonia in Spain, shares the following almost prophetic insight on this:

“…The whole matter represents an allusion to our future history that there would come a time when the descendants of Esau would overcome Jacob almost to the point of total destruction. This happened during the days of the Sages of the Mishnah in the generation of Rabbi Judah ben Baba and his colleagues, in accordance with their statement: “Said Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba: If a man will say to me, Give your life for the sanctification of the name of the Holy One blessed be He, I give it, so long as he will slay me forthwith, but a generation of persecution (shemad – forced apostasy), I cannot bear. What did they do in a generation of persecution? They would bring iron balls, make them white hot in the flame and place them under the armpits and drive their souls from them. There were other generations who did such things to us and worse than this. But we endured all and it passed us by, as is intimated in the text: “And Jacob came to Shalem (meaning whole or perfect, so that they text may be read homiletically: “And Jacob came through unscathed”)” (sources: Sefaria.com)

Antisemitism can hurt. Persecution will take its toll. It will never put us down. Just like Jacob, we may limp and hurt, but we will not stop. “I shall not die but I shall live and tell the deeds of God God has chastised me, but He has not delivered me to death.” (Psalm 118)

Sometimes You Need to Bend Your Head

Jews must stand proud and fight for their dignity. This is one of the lessons the Jews of the 20th Century had to learn in the most difficult of ways. That being said, not every fight is one you should pick.

“And he went ahead of them and prostrated himself to the ground seven times until he came close to his brother. And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

Jacob bowed before Esau. The most terrifying example of missing this lesson took place during the Bar Kochva rebellion. Jews decided to rebel against the Roman Empire. While they may have thought they don’t have much to lose, so much was lost. Fighting and rebelling does not always work.

Apart and a Part

In the 1800s, the city of Berlin had to put quotas on the number of Jews who can be baptized. No. this does not mean they were forcing Jews to baptize themselves; there were too many Jews applying to be Christened. When Germany gave Jews equal rights, suddenly Jews who have kept to their faith heroically were falling over each other so they can convert. This was a huge mistake.

“Thereupon, he [Esau] said, “Travel and we will go, and I will go alongside you.” And he said to him, “My master knows that the children are tender, and the flocks and the cattle, which are raising their young, depend upon me, and if they overdrive them one day, all the flocks will die. Now, let my master go ahead before his servant, and I will move [at] my own slow pace, according to the pace of the work that is before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my master, to Seir.” Thereupon Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “Why [do] that? May I find favor in my master’s eyes.” So Esau returned on that day on his way to Seir.”

Jacob was happy to reconcile with Esau; he knew, however, that they have different missions in life. No one likes to be hated. Because of the high levels of hostility to the Jewish people, when we finally feel accepted or in this case even invited, we are tempted. We are tempted by friendship and acceptance and can abandon what we stand for merely for mere acceptance. Jacob teaches us to be respectful and polite, yet to be able to say: “no”. Jacob teaches us here a lesson on how to be a part of the world around us, while being apart from it.

Feelings Vs. Practicality

One of the most morally troubling and difficult to understand stories in the book of the Genesis is the story of Dinah being kidnapped by the people of Shechem:

“Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to look about among the daughters of the land. And Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw her, and he took her, lay with her, and violated her….

Now it came to pass on the third day, when they [the people of Shechem] were in pain, that Jacob’s two sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword, and they came upon the city with confidence, and they slew every male. And Hamor and his son Shechem they slew with the edge of the sword, and they took Dinah out of Shechem’s house and left.”

Clearly, this was a drastic situation. Did it warrant such a drastic response? Jacob would say no.

“Thereupon, Jacob said to Simeon and to Levi, “You have troubled me, to discredit me among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and among the Perizzites, and I am few in number, and they will gather against me, and I and my household will be destroyed.” And they said, “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?”

What is not clear is whether the debate between Jacob and his sons Simeon and Levi was a practical one or a moral one. The simple reading of the verse is that Jacob was not upset and the actions they took, but rather of the consequences it may bring on them. He fears Canaanite retribution. His sons’ response? What is wrong is wrong. Our sister cannot be treated this way. No antisemitism should go undiscussed or unnoticed. The delicate balances that need to be walked will never be easy, practicality and ideology may collide, and there will always be difficult questions to deal with.

Only Infighting Can Take Us Down

Having survived a rapid succession of antisemitism and internal threats, Jacob and his family encounter what will ultimately bring them to their knees: infighting. Following the story of Esau, Esau’s angel, Shechem, we find in next week’s Parsha the story of Joseph and his brothers. Nothing has been truer in our history. Time and again, Jews have survived the most brutal of assaults. It wasn’t until we began turning on each other that we began falling apart. There is no shortage of examples, though some are less known than others. In a civil war over the case of Pilegesh Bagiva’ah (Judges chapters 19-21) the Jewish people nearly annihilated the tribe of Benjamin in a civil war that cost more than fifty thousand of our own people. Then came the splitting of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel (928 BCE). A brutal war between the kingdom of Judah and Israel(Chronicles I, 13), which hardly receives attention, has 500,000(!) Jews killed (less than 10,000 were killed in the crusades) . Other wars between Judah and Israel involved calling in a third nation such as Aram or Egypt to attack the “other” faction. Once the first Temple in destroyed, there is the famous story of Gedalia being killed by Yishmael ben Netanya, for which we have the fast of Gedaliah, bringing on the ultimate expulsion of all of the Jews in Israel. The rebuilding of the second Temple leads us to Alexander’s conquest and the miracle of Hannukah. The secret about the conflict? Much of it was a conflict between Hellenized Jews who sided with the Greeks and over siding with the Maccabees and other Jews. Not long after, to heirs to the Hasmonean thrown, Yohanan Aristobulus and his brother Horkenus fought over their father’s throne. Aristobulus turned to the Roman army for help and another civil war, now with the Romans involved, took place. A little known siege was set on Jerusalemץ According to Josephus, 12,000 Jews were killed. In addition to the cost in lives, nothing can change that the one who drew the Romans deeper into Judea politics was a Jew, something the nation would regret many times over. Closer to the destruction of the Temple, the vicious and unforgiving sectarian fights in Jerusalem were so intense that Titus decided to hold off his offense on Jerusalem. Why loose Roman soldiers when the Jews are killing each other, was the Roman argument. Again and again, through our history, we have been able to overcome huge hardships. The malignant virus of infighting and inter Jewish conflict are things we never seem to have cured. There is no better manifestation of this virus that when seeing Jews fight today over which party, ideology, belief is most responsible for antisemitism and blaming our brothers and sisters who are aligned with that position.  Sadly, Antisemitism crosses ideologies and political orientations. It is our job as Jews to stand shoulder to shoulder, united, so we can defeat antisemitism.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Divrei Torah in this article are dedicated with loving memory to the Kedoshim killed in yesterday’s brutally antisemitic attack in Jersey City.

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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