The Purpose of Anti-Semitism – Vayishlach
וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר (בראשית לב, כה).
Yaakov returns to ארץ כנען 34 years after he left home at his parents’ behest and prepares himself for the encounter with his brother Eisav. The Torah tells us that Yaakov was afraid of the impending reunion וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ. In last week’s shiur we discussed one of the reasons that Yaakov was afraid and it was not because he was militarily inferior to Eisav.
We tend to think of Yaakov as this “nerdy” kid sitting in the tent studying Torah, but nothing could be further from the truth. When Yaakov first meets Rachel at the well, he rolls the stone off the well and the Midrash (Breishit Rabba 70, 12) says א"ר יוחנן כזה שהוא מעביר פקק מעל פי צלוחית, that Yaakov “flicked” the stone off like someone taking a cork off a bottle. This stone was so large and heavy that normally it required many shepherds, all pushing together, to move it. Later we read about Lavan chasing after Yaakov and them making a covenant in Gal’ed. Lavan’s men gathered smaller rocks, while the Midrash (Breishit Rabba 74, 13) says that Yaakov took a stone כשן הזה של טבריה, a humungous, towering rock. Yaakov, on his own, could have given Eisav and his 400 men a small “nudge” and they would have been עליו השלום.
And Yaakov was not alone, he had Shimon and Levi with him. We read in this week’s parsha that Shimon and Levi were just about bar mitzvah age (Rabbeinu Bachyei) when they slaughtered all the inhabitants of Schem because of the episode with Dina. How many did they kill? According to Rebi Menahem Azariah da Fano (עשרת מאמרות, מאמר "אם כל חי", חלק א' סימן ג') and Seder Hadorot (ערך רע"ק), Shimon and Levi singlehandedly wiped out 24,000 people! Later, in parshat Vayigash, we read about Yehuda approaching Yosef to “plead” for Binyamin and the Midrash (Breishit Rabba, 93) says that Yehuda approached Yosef to attack him. Yehuda had a bristly “hair” on his chest that when he became angry was like an armor piercing spear. We also know that the tribes of Reuven and Gad were fierce warriors - they spearheaded Am Yisrael in the battle for Eretz Yisrael in the time of Yehoshua.
So obviously Yaakov’s fear was not of being defeated in battle by Eisav and his 400 men, who were like a “flea” against such intimidating forces!
The Mefarshim say that the lives of the Avot are a kind of “template” for everything that Am Yisrael would ever have to encounter in their history. During their lives, the Avot experienced every tribulation that we would subsequently have to experience and, by virtue of this fact, they instilled in us, in our makeup, the tools to be able to cope in any possible situation.
The Ramban takes an interesting approach throughout this parsha and says that parshat Vayishlach in particular, is the “blueprint” for how Am Yisrael manages to survive in exile, amongst the goyim. For example, Yaakov prepares for his meeting with Eisav by sending him bribes, by davening to HKB”H and preparing for war. According to the Ramban, these principles serve as the basis for many halachot in regard to our dealings with the goyim. For example – when giving a bribe to a goy, we should give it in small denomination notes, like $5 bills instead of $100 bills, so that it looks more voluminous. We learn this from the fact that Yaakov “staggered” the parts of the gift he sent to Eisav וְרֶוַח תָּשִׂימוּ בֵּין עֵדֶר וּבֵין עֵדֶר.
There is a story told about Rebi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. In the late 1800’s in the town of Brisk there was an official in the municipality in charge of the town’s academic institutions, who was a virulent anti-Semite. One day the Jewish community received word that he planned to shut down all the Talmudei Torah in Brisk. Rebi Chaim sent numerous envoys to plead with him and to try bribe him, but this official was “enlightened” and refused to accept any bribes. The envoys returned to report to the Rebi of Brisk that all their efforts had failed. Rebi Chaim said “This is impossible - it cannot possibly be that a goy will not take a bribe!” He learned it from the passuk in this week’s parsha וַיִּפְצַר בּוֹ וַיִּקָּח (בראשית לג, יג), initially Eisav refused to accept Yaakov’s gift, but Yaakov “pressed” him and eventually Eisav accepted.
One of the community members said to Rebi Chaim “Let me try, I will get him to accept the bribe”. The next morning this Chassid went to the office of this official, to make an appointment to see him. It was a sweltering summer’s day, with temperatures soaring above 27 degrees Celcius. The Chassid went to the meeting dressed in his winter woolies, a fur hat, a scarf tightly wrapped around his neck, a thick coat and snow boots. Between meetings, the official exited his office to go to the bathroom and noticed, in the waiting room, this strange sight of the Chassid dressed for Arctic weather in the middle of summer.
He went up to him and said “What’s going on, is today Purim?” The Chassid replied “No it is not Purim, last night my late mother עליה השלום appeared to me in a dream. She said that I should dress this morning in very warm clothes because although the weather may appear to be very hot, around midday it will change and an icy storm will descend on Brisk, so I did what she told me!” The official said “You are crazy! The forecast for the entire day is sweltering heat”. The Chassid replied “My mother has never lied to me or led me astray. I am prepared to make a bet with you. If my mother is right and it begins storming this afternoon, you give me 10,000 rubles, if you are right and it remains hot the whole day, I will give you 10,000 rubles!”
The official eagerly agreed to the bet and they agreed to meet again later in the afternoon to see who was right. Meanwhile the official asked “What did you come to my office for?” “Never mind” replied the Chassid, “We’ll talk about it when we meet later this afternoon.”
At 5pm the Chassid returns to the official’s office and the temperature is still 27 degrees with not a cloud in sight. “I cannot understand it”, said the Chassid, “My mother has never been wrong before. Anyway a deal is a deal” and he takes out an envelope with 10,000 rubles and hands it to the official, who pockets it with a huge grin on his face. “So what did you want to talk to me about?” he asks. “I wanted to discuss the closure of the Talmudei Torah and see if there was any way to prevent it”, replies the Chassid. “I see that you are an honest fellow”, replies the official so, as a favor to you, I will rescind the order!”
Yaakov was not afraid for his current situation in meeting Eisav. He was fearful for his children in the millennia to follow, when they would have to cope with Eisav’s oppression.
In this parsha Yaakov gives us many pointers that have helped us over the centuries to endure galut, but the most effective of them all has been the passuk at the beginning of the shiur וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ. The night before meeting Eisav, Yaakov Avinu remains behind alone to battle with an angel. Some Mefarshim say this was Eisav’s guardian angel the ס"מ, other Mefarshim say it was מיכאל.
Our sages say that this passuk holds to the key to Am Yisrael’s survival in galut – וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ, that we remain alone, segregated from the goyim and do not get swallowed up by them. There are numerous halachot in this regard, פת עכו"ם, בישול עכו"ם, יין נסך and others, that all have one central purpose, to prevent us from mingling with the goyim. Not to eat with them, not to drink with them, not to involve them in our food preparation, etc.
One of the secrets of Am Yisrael’s survival in Egypt was that they segregated themselves from the Egyptian culture. They kept and gave their children Hebrew names, they continued to speak Lashon Hakodesh, they dressed differently to the Egyptians and they did not adopt the licentious behavior of the Egyptians (Shir Hashirim Rabba 4, 12). Although it is not mentioned in the Midrash, they also did not eat bread with the Egyptians, it was considered a תועבה, both to the Egyptians and to Am Yisrael.
There are different interpretations to the end of the passuk וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ. Rashi says that Yaakov fought with the angel and in this tussle kicked up dust (from the root אבק), that reached the כסא הכבוד. Rabbeinu Bachyei says that the letters א and ח are interchangeable and it may be read וַיֵּחָבֵק, an embrace – that when two people wrestle with each other it is as if they are embracing.
רבותינו say that there are two strategies the goyim adopt towards the Jews in galut. The first is to oppress and the second is to embrace.
How many times in galut has Am Yisrael been oppressed? Slaughtered? Expelled? This was the strategy of Haman, the Greeks and numerous others - to oppress us physically or spiritually. Haman decreed physical extermination. The Greeks issued decrees to prevent us surviving spiritually, against brit milah, against studying Torah, against bringing wood into Yerushalyim to bring Korbanot on the Mizbeach, etc. In all the above cases, the effect on Am Yisrael was the opposite to that our oppressors intended. It resulted in Am Yisrael consolidating, circling the wagon and getting closer to HKB”H.
The other approach is the “embrace”. The goyim give the impression that we have nothing to fear from them. They allow us to live amongst them, to mix with them, to become part of their culture and system of government. It was like this during the Golden Age of Spain, in many Islamic countries, in Poland, Germany, USA. This “embrace” was much more deadly than the oppression, because it caused us to let down our guard, assimilate and lose our heritage. More souls have been lost to this surreptitious strategy than to the oppression strategy.
But HKB”H looks after Am Yisrael, even in galut, even after we sinned and our Batei Mikdash were destroyed, HKB”H is still looking after us. He has orchestrated various defense mechanisms that preserve our integrity as the Am Segula.
The first, as we have seen above is the response to oppression. Part of Am Yisrael’s genetic makeup is that when are faced with צרה, we tend to unite as a nation and get closer to HKB”H. It has been like this over the centuries and continues to this very day. Whenever there is a war, the Jews in Israel miraculously unite. A day before we may have been at each others’ throats, even on the brink of civil war, but when an outside oppressor threatens, we begin to circle the wagon.
The second mechanism is the counter to the “embrace” strategy above and this mechanism is called anti-Semitism.
I heard a lecture by an Oxford professor of economics trying to analyze why the State of Israel, despite being such a small country has become a such a major player in the global economy and is called the “start-up nation” and one of the leaders in hi-tech in the world. The gist of his lecture is that he dispels the theory that Jews genetically have greater intelligence than other ethnic groups and he believes the secret is cultural. He says that as a product of so many centuries of oppression and exile from their homeland, the Jews learned to network more effectively. Unlike the Chinese, for example, in different countries around the world, who have little or no contact with their countrymen in other countries, a Jew in England often has familial or business relationships with another Jew in Canada, America, South Africa or Australia. This culture of oppression has also fostered an irreverence of authority, contrasted for example with the Japanese culture, and this leads to innate Jewish open-mindedness and thinking-out-of-the-box.
Regardless of whether you agree with the above theories or not, or whether, as we believe, it is due to genetics, the morality of the Torah, or HKB”H simply looking out for us, etc., the bottom line is - as an ethnic group, the Jews have succeeded and prospered disproportionately to other ethnic groups over the ages. In the last century Jews in the Diaspora, on the whole, have become well-to-do and the fledgling State of Israel has become a world leading economic player.
When you have one population group progressing disproportionately to others, a dynamic begins to emerge of jealousy and animosity. The Jews in every country in the Diaspora have always been considered a non-native, outsider ethnic group and when they prosper more than their Hispanic, Islamic, Christian, Afro-American etc. neighbors, this jealousy and animosity mutates into a different kind of malignant dynamic of conspiracy. “The Jews are taking our jobs, Jews are taking over our country, Jews are taking over the world!” This is especially exacerbated when Jews are participant in the system of government and administration.
This dynamic repeats itself throughout history, in Spain, Poland, Germany, more recently in Europe and the USA and has been labeled “anti-Semitism”, baseless hatred of Jews, born of jealousy and imitation.
Sociologically it is not difficult to understand the dynamics of anti-Semitism, it is based on a logical progression. What is missing from this analysis, however, is another factor that appears in this week’s parsha. Anti-Semitism is Divinely preprogrammed and inevitable. It is a defense mechanism to protect the integrity of Am Yisrael - without it Am Yisrael would assimilate and disappear. Ironically, those who implement it with malicious intent, instead of harming Am Yisrael, are in fact invoking the very mechanism to save us from destruction.
The common misconception that “anti-Semitism is born of ignorance” is mostly untrue, or more accurately - it is true, but not in the sense that those who expound it mean. By “educating” the other nations as to how enlightened, how kind, how moral Am Yisrael is, all you do is accentuate the disproportionality between us and them and encourage more anti-Semitism. The truth is that anti-Semitism is born of ignorance – the ignorance within Am Yisrael of our true purpose and destiny in this world, which is to serve HKB”H and reveal His reality to the other nations.
Chazal say that it is a halacha – עשו שונא יעקב. It does not matter how much you educate, how good your PR is, how much chessed you do by sending Israeli rescue teams and doctors to disaster areas around the world, etc., Eisav will always despise Yaakov, because - we highlight their shortcomings. The only equation that is relevant is given in parshat Toldot - וְעַל חַרְבְּךָ תִחְיֶה (עשו) וְאֶת אָחִיךָ (יעקב) תַּעֲבֹד וְהָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר תָּרִיד וּפָרַקְתָּ עֻלּוֹ מֵעַל צַוָּארֶךָ. The only way we enjoy respite from Eisav is by virtue of HKB”H’s protection and we only merit that protection when we adhere to HKB”H and the Torah. When we fail to do so, Eisav has free reign over us.
This is not to say that since Am Yisrael is destined to be an עם לבדד ישכן that we cannot or should not learn anything from the goyim. Chazal encouraged us to learn from the חכמת הגוים, science, mathematics, medicine, technology, etc. because by doing so, we reveal the truth of HKB”H in this world. Intelligence is not exclusive to Am Yisrael, HKB”H also gives wisdom to the goyim. There is a special bracha when you meet a genius among the goyim בא"ה אמ"ה ......... שנתן מחכמתו לבשר ודם. The Torah is not against learning from the goyim, it is against adopting their culture.
It was not with military strength that Yaakov confronted Eisav, not then and not now. It is with integrity of faith. If Am Yisrael has integrity of faith, no physical power can threaten us. If we lack integrity of faith, no physical power can protect us. If Am Yisrael is performing our destiny in the world, no force can stand up to us. Our destiny is to serve HKB”H and to reveal the reality of HKB”H to the world. If we rely solely on כוחי ועוצם ידי then we tread perilous waters. We must do our own Hishtadlut, all the techniques outlined in this week’s parsha, to safeguard ourselves from oppression by the goyim, but ultimately, it is our unswerving faith in HKB”H and adherence to His Torah that ensures our continued existence.