Shabbat VaYetze: Whence Antisemitism?

מַאי ״הַר סִינַי״? הַר שֶׁיָּרְדָה שִׂנְאָה לְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם עָלָיו

What is “Sinai”? To indicate that from there, hatred – sin’ah – descended.
– Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 89a

We have been following the story of Ya’akov / Jacob now for long enough to recognize that he is no saint. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Torah is that it is not a hagiography, not a “Lives of the Saints” describing those humans who seem to be perfect in thought and action, whom we are expected to admire and emulate. No, Ya’akov is all too human, from his name – Hebrew for “heel” – to his youthful willingness to betray his brother.

In the latter part of parashat VaYetze, which we read in this third year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading (an ancient minhag but not widely followed among Jews in the U.S.) we find a different Ya’akov. He is older, he has wives and children to support, and has been working for his father in law Laban for twenty years. It is Laban who has taught Jacob what it means to be on the other side of deceit; Laban who in this parashah speaks of love and concern but only displays such feelings toward himself.

Jacob serves his father in law as shepherd, guarding the flocks and ensuring their welfare. He and Laban enter an agreement that all the speckled and striped sheep will be Jacob’s, as his payment. Laban then immediately removes all such sheep from the flock and has his sons take them far away to graze, thereby cheating Jacob of his pay. Jacob, however, knows a shepherd’s trick, and he causes the offspring of the sheep in his care to bring forth “streaked, spotted and speckled young.” (Bereshit 30.39).

In short, he outsmarts his father in law, who is trying to cheat him. But Laban’s sons find fault with him, in terms that seem to echo much later antisemitic accusations:

וַיִּשְׁמַ֗ע אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֤י בְנֵֽי־לָבָן֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לָקַ֣ח יַעֲקֹ֔ב אֵ֖ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֑ינוּ וּמֵאֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֔ינוּ עָשָׂ֕ה אֵ֥ת כׇּל־הַכָּבֹ֖ד הַזֶּֽה׃

Now he heard the things that Laban’s sons were saying: “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this wealth.” (Bereshit 31.1)

Then as now, the smart Jew is not admired, but accused of greed, selfishness, and deceit. 

Like any delusion, antisemitism cannot be reasoned with; it cannot be explained away nor demonstrated to be false. It is a blind lashing out, and all one can do is, as Jacob does, to become aware of it, and to take measures to keep oneself away from it. In Western democracies, we are fortunate to sometimes reach the ear of elected representatives who will further those measures.

Our ancestors do not understand the hatred for our people any more than we do, as our midrash (cited above) reflects. We know that many, many Jews have attempted to leave their Jewish identity behind; ironically, very often their descendants find their way to a shul, seeking the spiritual path their great grandparents gave up in their desperation to find a safe space to live.

The prophet Bil’am spoke words about us that remain true thousands of years later:

הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations (BaMidbar 23.9)

We can’t guarantee our safety as Jews; ironically, the times we live in have shown us that no one can do that. No one can guarantee peace, freedom, security… our only choice is how we will respond to whatever comes. And here is where being Jewish is a great support: our tradition teaches that every human being is a reflection of the divine image. Every moment of life is a gift. And every day is a blessing if we celebrate it as one.

If you were born into the Jewish people, or if you have found your way into belonging, doesn’t matter one iota to the antisemite. It shouldn’t matter to us either; we need every one of us to hold hands, as we step forward on our Jewish spiritual path together.

This is that path: to respond to baseless hatred by doing random acts of kindness, for it is kindness, along with study and prayer, that uphold the world. Smile at a stranger; give someone flowers for no reason; cultivate patience for others and yourself.

Shabbat Shalom

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