Jewish Journal

We Never Wanted To Be Tough Guys

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

July 29, 2014 | 7:07 pm

Call it an occupational hazard.

Because I am a rabbi, I have this bizarre habit of looking at what’s going on in the world, and seeing it reflected in the weekly Torah portion.

A few weeks ago, while we were still in the book of Numbers, in a primitive act of vengeance Pinchas slayed Cozbi and Zimri. That same week, Israeli thugs mercilessly murdered the sixteen-year-old Palestinian, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Torah and life walked nervously hand in hand.

A week later, in the Torah portion, Moses castigated the tribes of Reuben and Manasseh for wanting to stay on the other side of the Jordan: “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6). As life imitated Torah once again, that very week, Israel went to war. On whichever side of “the Jordan” we find ourselves, we are one people.

A week later, the Torah portion taught about the cities of refuge to which inadvertent killers might flee, to escape the vengeance of the family members of the deceased. As our eyes beheld the dead of Gaza, we wondered if there are still cities of refuge, even of the soul, to which we might flee to escape the world’s anger and vengeance.

And now, this week. As we begin the book of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses: “You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them… For I will not give of you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill county of Seir as a possession to Esau. Whatever food you eat you shall obtain from them for money; even the water you drink you shall procure from them for money.”” (Deuteronomy 2: 4-6)

OK, I get it. When you buy food from the descendants of Esau, pay for the food with money. Don’t do something stupid -- like sell the birthright back to them.

But, wait a second. Something odd has happened here. What does God mean that “the descendants of Esau will be afraid of you?” We, the Israelites – scary people? How did that happen?

In 1824, the German Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine, imagined Jacob speaking to Esau, also known as Edom. In “To Edom,” the poet wrote:

With each other, brother fashion,
Have we borne this many an age.
Thou hast borne with my existence,
And I have borne with thy rage.

Many a time, in days of darkness,
Wonder-strange hath been thy mood,
And thy dear and pious talons
Hast thou reddened in my blood.

Now our friendship groweth closer;
Nay, it waxeth daily now:
I myself begin to bluster
And am nigh as mad as thou.

“I myself being to bluster/And am nigh as mad as thou.” Heine wonders aloud: have the children of Israel put on the skins of the children of Esau, the hunter? Have we become powerful, and even coveted the “dear and pious talons” of Esau?

No. We just wanted to survive – no, not just to survive, but to thrive. To be a “free people in our Land.” We wanted to imagine the words of Jeremiah, enshrined in the wedding liturgy – that “yet again there would be heard, in the cities of Judah and on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the voices of bride and groom and children playing.” 

To be Esau: no, thanks.

But, let’s get one thing straight.

For centuries, the bullies of the world stole our lunch money from us. That taught us that when it comes to powerlessness – once again, no, thanks.

But, for some reason, there are those in the world who just love powerless Jews. Or, at the very least, they get very nervous when Jews are no longer passive. (How else do you explain that in central and eastern Europe, gentiles fell in love with klezmer – the music of powerless Jews?) For many in the world, any demonstration of Jewish power (or, the Jewish refusal to be powerless) symbolizes our coveting of Esau’s “dear and pious talons.”

I am getting tired of it. If I hear, once again, how Palestinian casualties in Gaza are “disproportionate,” I might be forced to blurt out, impolitely: “Disproportionate to what?” What is Israel supposed to do – come up with more losses so that the world will feel better? Would that make it “fairer?”

Ruth Wisse has written: “Once damned for their lack of power, Jews would now be accused of becoming too strong?” (Wisse, Jews And Power, 137). As countless Red Alerts go off on countless smart phones, warning of incoming rockets from Gaza; as more tunnels are discovered, each with a fiendish, genocidal purpose: is Jewish powerlessness really such a metziah?

Once again – no, thanks. Oh, sure -- it would be great if we could, like Sally Field at the Academy Awards, be able to squeal to the world: “You like me, you really like me!” Apparently, in the United States, “they really do.” A recent poll indicates that Jews are the most popular religious group in America.

But the goal of war is to win the war -- not the popularity contest.

But have no fear. God’s vision is, ultimately, broader than ours could ever be.

Recall that God reminds the Israelites that “the descendants of Esau” are, in fact, “your kinsmen.” As the Palestinians are the descendants of Ishmael, Isaac’s brother. Also, our “kinsmen.”

Is it too optimistic to hope that we might, all of us, come to know that? 

Maybe not this week. But may it come to pass, speedily, in our day.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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