Ari Shishler
Working to bring Moshiach

We should stop playing victim

My grandfather was dropped off in South Africa when he was twelve years old. I say “dropped off” because his parents delivered him to distant family in Durban before heading back to Amsterdam to help the war effort. 

It took seven decades before my grandfather would consider himself a Holocaust survivor. Despite having fled the Netherlands and lost dozens of family members, he hadn’t been incarcerated in a concentration camp. In his mind, he had dodged- not survived- the Holocaust. Only when, while in his eighties, he connected with “real” survivors, did he learn that he too qualified. 

Official label notwithstanding, my grandpa was a Survivor. Not the reality TV kind; the resilient type who makes a go of even the toughest circumstances. Like being left in a foreign country by your parents. 

He absolutely, unequivocally refused to be a victim.

Rather than bemoan lost opportunity, he marched himself into a local Shul and demanded that the dozen old minyan men make him a bar mitzvah. For his second bar mitzvah, he proudly donned the scarf-tallis they had gifted him then. 

He quit high school to enter the workforce and quickly rose through the ranks of local retail chains. He would go on to own his own car dealership. When he retired, he used his passion for cycling to sell bicycles. When he could no longer ride, he refurbished and sold wheelchairs. 

He would not allow his lack of education to prevent him from marrying a poised, educated legal secretary. When doctors insisted that his disabled son be institutionalised, my grandfather sent him to learn karate to gain control of his wounded body. He later coached him to become a dependable member of the workforce.   

Grandpa was no victim. He was a survivor. 

As was his generation. They, who witnessed the butchering of their relatives, never thought to call themselves Holocaust victims. They wore their tattoos as evidence that they had survived. 

I imagine that they would be unimpressed with our society’s obsession with victimhood. They’d probably grow impatient with the now ubiquitous stories of “oppression”. 

Sift through Jewish history, and you’ll find that Jews don’t do victimhood.

Take Jacob as an example. He had a rough life. His father favoured his older sociopath brother, who he had to later flee. When he escaped said brother’s assassination plot, he landed up being duped by the uncle who had offered him refuge. Jacob, the sincere scholar who flourished within the library walls, had to pivot to survive the cutthroat world of pagan conmen. 

Yet, we hear nothing of Jacob’s depression or disadvantaged status. The Torah details his meteoric financial rise in an impossible business climate. It describes how he built a spiritually solid family while living in the locus of promiscuity. 

The Jacob who confronts his wayward brother in this week’s Parsha doesn’t play the victim card. His message to Esau is clear: I am humbled to have been blessed so much by G-d. There is no “You need to help me because I have suffered” in Jacob’s delivery. He is no victim; he is a survivor. 

Jacob becomes Israel in this Torah portion; he who overcomes whatever humans or even G-d may throw at him. And we Jews are called “children of Israel”, spiritual heirs to Jacob’s survivor psyche. 

Victimhood may score you sympathy points, but to overcome and rebuild is infinitely more fulfilling. My grandfather wasn’t religious. Many survivors were not. Yet, embedded in their DNA lay the stamina to bounce back, to be Israelites who wrestle the world and come out on top. 

In a world that rewards weakness, Jacob’s example reminds us that those who pick themselves up and move forward, succeed. 

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler is the director of Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group. Rabbi Shishler is also a special needs father. His daughter, Shaina has an ultra-rare neuroegenratove condition called BPAN. Rabbi Shishler shares Shaina's story and lessons about kindness and disability inclusion on his other blog, "Shaina's Brocha" and through lectures and Kindness Cookies teambuilding workshops.
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