December 10, 2008
Them vs. Us
Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
Was it Mort Sahl who said, "Just because I'm a paranoid, doesn't mean that they're not out to get me"?
In this week's parsha, the narrative begins with the drama of Yaakov and his tender flock -- two wives, two quasi-wives, 11 sons, a daughter -- preparing to meet with an oncoming army, imposingly headed by his anything-but-fraternal "twin" brother, Esav. Yaakov fears the worst, and even as he prays to Hashem for protection and sends gifts to appease Esav, he prepares for war. The brothers meet ultimately, and Esav "ran to greet him, and hugged him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him" (Genesis 33:4).
Rashi, the paramount medieval commentator, notes the two midrashic traditions that discuss what actually happened during "The Kiss." Because the Torah text is unusually punctuated, with six extraneous dots marking the word va-yishakehu ("and he kissed him"), the rabbis analyzed what happened.
One midrashic opinion is that the kiss was insincere -- that Esav actually tried to bite Yaakov's throat out after deceptively inducing his brother to relax his defenses. The other opinion is that after 20 years driven by relentless hate, Esav laid eyes on his brother, and it all came to him at once: He is my brother, for God's sake, my brother. And he kissed him with all his love.
For many, that midrashic discussion historically has served as the narrative's denouement and the ultimate launching pad for distrusting non-Jews, all of them. According to the opinion that Esav tried to bite the neck, not to kiss it, that animus reflects an immutable law of nature, comparable to gravity, only with metaphor attached: "It is a known law that Esav hates Yaakov."
Metaphorically interpreted: All non-Jews are out to get us.
I was taught that law as a child being schooled in Brooklyn. They all are out to get us.
As for the second interpretation, which bears equal weight in the original midrashic discussion -- that Esav kissed his brother lovingly -- well, it never was taught to us as kids. We did not even have to know it for the test. I only discovered it years later, when on my initiative I looked at the original source discussion.
Certainly, ours is a history of being targeted by "them" for no reason other than our being "us." The Christian, en route to liberate the Holy Land from the infidel Muslim Saracens, stopped along watering holes throughout Europe to massacre whole Jewish bystander communities.
Three centuries later, as a bubonic plague took hold throughout Europe, insane justification somehow was found to murder one-third of our people. Three centuries later, Bogdan Chmielnitzki and the Cossack massacres. Three centuries later, Hitler, the Nazis and their European confederates. Not to mention the Inquisition in Spain, the expulsions from lands as gentle as France and England, the persecutions of Mashad, the mellahs of Morocco and the ghettos of Italy and the June 1941 Iraqi Shavuot pogrom after the fall of the Golden Square.
So many times we got caught in the crossfire of other people, insane and crazy with one or another agenda of hate, who stopped by along the way to target us, too. As recently as Mumbai, where goons and thugs fighting over the Pakistan-India Kashmir dispute chose to perpetrate horrific evils against targeted Jewish bystanders while on a murder spree, we have been caught or targeted in their crossfire.
It is easy to see how persuasive the "known law of nature" seems to be: They all are out to get us. Just look at history. All of them are out to get us.
Only, that is not all of our history. From Righteous Gentiles who genuinely risked and sometimes gave their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust to centuries and millennia of next door neighbors who lent us milk or sugar or watered our plants and picked up our mail (yes, an anachronism) when we went on vacation, to non-Jewish employers who hired us and non-Jewish teachers who helped us learn to read and to count, a second law also exists: No, they are not all out to get us.
And despite this country's shameful moments -- Peter Stuyvesant's governance, Ulysses Grant's General Order No. 11, the Leo Frank lynching, the 1928 Massena Blood Libel, the years of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford and the 1991 Crown Heights Riots -- we have flourished and built Torah institutions, gained huge support for Israel, including financial and military backing and the right to hold dual citizenship with her, and have been able to play a role in every aspect of this land's culture and enterprise and civilization. We assuredly owe it to our kids to teach them that, no, all of them are not out to get us.
And because the playing field at this time and place in our history is essentially level, it is incumbent on us to conduct our affairs honestly and ethically and to expect and demand the same from those business enterprises that operate in our community or -- even if they are out in the sticks of the Corn Belt -- that operate to serve our community.
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