“It’s the Jews” – Shabbat Vayishlach, Friday, November 19, 2021

“Your name shall now be Israel.” This is the message, the blessing, that is bestowed upon the patriarch Jacob in this week’s Torah portion. The blessing comes in the hours before Jacob is to be reunited with Esau – the elder brother whose birthright he had stolen many years before. Jacob lives in fear – quite rightly – that Esau, who is marching toward him with an army, means him harm. Jacob has sent everyone else out ahead – his companions, his household, his flocks and his herds – but he’s too afraid to go beyond the narrow stream that would mark, for him, the point of no return.

 The blessing comes from an all-night struggle with a mysterious man who accosts him in the middle of the stream. With no clear winner in the wrestling match, the stranger demands to be released. Jacob replies: Not until you bless me! And the stranger replies:

“No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel. For you have struggled with God and with human beings and you have prevailed.”

Jacob realizes that he has been struggling with an angel sent by God to test him. And that the name itself is the blessing he demanded.

Yisrael. The name Jacob will carry. The nation he will father.

If the name was God’s gift to Jacob, the nation was God’s gift to the world. Yisrael. We, the people Israel. Born in faith and in struggle, in exile and in redemption, we have become a light to the nations, an inspiration to those who are oppressed and silenced.

But some of the details of this story of Jacob’s struggle give us a hint that the blessing of Yisrael could contain the seeds of a curse.

You see, even though the angel re-names him Israel, the Torah continues to call him Jacob. Why is that? If the angel can assure the father of our people that he is worthy as Yisrael, why does the Torah say otherwise?

It’s possible that Jacob just doesn’t see himself as Israel yet – that he somehow still identifies as the “other” – the youngest, the thief, the trouble-maker. Not exactly what God had in mind as the progenitor of the “chosen people.”

But it’s also possible that the Torah is reaching out to us, as it has to every generation before us, to warn us. To warn us about the way the world perceives us, demeans us, despises us, treats us as the “other.”

The Talmudic rabbis certainly saw it this way: They often used Esau as a representation of the bloody, tyrannical, Jew-hating oppressors of Rome, first under pagan rule and then Christian domination. Other sages, reflecting the antisemitism rampant in their own times and places, see in Esau’s embrace and kiss of Jacob a falsehood, a cover for the loathing for Jacob in Esau’s heart. They even depict Esau as a blood-sucker, biting Jacob’s neck rather than weeping over it. We are not Yisrael to the rest of the world, the rabbis remind us. We are the undeserving, underhanded Jacob.

And, here, the Torah warns us to be prepared for what that means.

Here’s what’s happened in our time and our place just since we talked about antisemitism at the High Holy Days.

This past Monday, a teenager in Texas was charged in federal court with setting fire to an Austin Reform temple, Congregation Beth Israel. The arson attack, which could land 18-year old Franklin Sechriest in jail for ten years, did a reported $150,000 worth of damage.

When the FBI searched Sechriest’s home and car, they found materials to make Molotov cocktails; stickers depicting Jewish figures with their faces exed out and a caption that read “the price of freedom is paid in blood”; and an entry in his journal in which he wrote, on the same day “Get matched on Tinder!” and “I set a synagogue on fire.”

A few hours after the fire was set, members of a neo-Nazi group that calls itself the “Goyim Defense League” livestreamed a swastika burning in the Austin area – but insisted, oh no, it had nothing to do with the Jews.[1]

Glenn Youngkin, who was just elected Governor of Virginia and rode a wave of parent anger about a loss of control over what happens in public schools, blamed his opponent during the campaign for chaos in the schools. But then, most helpfully, he segued right into a widespread antisemitic trope that goes to the heart of conspiracy theories about Jews secretly controlling the world:

“But also [look] at George Soros-backed allies,” he said. “They’ve inserted political operatives into our school system disguised as school boards.”

Apparently the bring-the-Jew-hatred-to-the-school debate is, like, a thing.

Late last month, at what’s become a typically chaotic and angry school board meeting – this one in Chandler, Arizona – a woman identified as Melanie Rettler ranted about critical race theory, vaccines, and other right-wing conspiracy theories. And then she went here:

“Every one of these things, the deep state, the cabal, the swamp, the elite – you can’t mention it but I will – there is one race that owns all the pharmaceutical companies and these vaccines aren’t safe, they aren’t effective and they aren’t free . . . . you know that you’re paying for it through the increase in gas prices, the increase in food prices . . . if you want to bring race into this: It’s the Jews.” [2]

It’s the Jews.

It’s always the Jews, in the end. Jews controlling the banks and the weather. Jews starting the huge wildfires in the west with secret space laser weapons. Jews (George Soros most especially), secretly funding the march of brown people over the southern border in order to “replace” real white, Christian Americans.

As Zack Beauchamp wrote for Vox earlier this year:

“There’s a reason Jews are so often the targets of conspiracy theories, even mainstream ones. Much of conspiracy theorizing as we know it — the enterprise of explaining the world’s woes by positing that a shadowy, all-powerful elite is behind them — arose out of the European anti-Semitic tradition. The influence of that tradition is inescapable; its language and conceptual architecture are inherently linked to longstanding and deadly stereotypes about Jews.”[3]

Just because this kind of lunacy has gone on for centuries doesn’t mean it wasn’t lunacy from the get-go. A teaching ascribed to Rabbi Menahem Ziemba, who certainly must have seen his share of Jew-hatred manifested in early 20th-century Poland, tells us:

“This hatred has no reason behind it, but merely, as the Psalm (105:25) says, ‘They turned their heart to hate His people.’ In one place, they hate the Jews because they are capitalists, and in another – because they are socialists; here, because they are overtly ambitious, and there – because they are lazy and a burden on the public welfare; here because they are too conservative, and there—because they are revolutionary. Thus, the reasons for this hatred are mutually contradictory, and have not an ounce of logic behind them.”[4]

It is lunacy. But it is lunacy that has deep roots in medieval fear and ignorance that is someone alleviated by easy answers and vulnerable targets.

No wonder our patriach might have kept a low profile here. No Yisrael for him, but only the nondescript Jacob.

And yet, this story – when understood another way – gives us hope instead of fear, and light instead of darkness.

Because not all of our tradition sees Esau as inherently evil or angry or false or vengeful.

One rabbinic source actually sees true brotherly love in this reunion:

“And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept” (Gen. 33:4).

Says the author of Ha-emek Berakhah:

“Both of them cried. This teaches us that at the time Jacob felt love for Esau. And this is true in all generations. When Esau’s descendants are stirred by a pure spirit to appreciate the greatness of Jacob’s descendants, we too are moved to recognize that Esau is our brother.”[5]

Jews are not the cause of antisemitism and it is not our responsibility to stop this centuries-old plague. That’s up to the rest of the world to resolve. But in the meantime, we cannot shrink back and stay silent and allow ourselves to feel and act like the “other,” as others may treat us.

My colleague Rabbi Michael Dolgin points us to the fact that Jacob’s struggle with the angel occurs at night, but ends with the break of dawn. “The light of dawn,” he wrote, “is inevitably coming to extinguish the dark. When we face difficult situations, we must respond with strength, spirit and faith: three elements that signify the Jewish peoples’ approach to life.”[6]

Strength, spirit and faith. Our message, and our calling, especially at this time of the year. Especially this year. As Thanksgiving glides immediately into Hanukkah, our gratitude to God as redeemer melds with our faith in ourselves as Yisrael.

And so: We must bring all the collective energy of Yisrael to bear. We must represent. We are not the other. We will not be silent. We will not hide in darkness. As we light the candles of Hanukkah we remember: We are the ones commanded to bring light into the world during seasons and times of darkness.

As surely as night gives way to dawn, we must believe in the light of humanity, the brotherhood of Jacob and Esau, and the fulfillment of Yisrael’s blessing.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and humanity’s future. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://www.thedailybeast.com/franklin-barrett-sechriest-texas-teen-who-torched-austin-synagogue-seethed-about-jews-in-diary-feds-say?source=email&via=desktop

[2] https://www.jta.org/2021/11/02/united-states/its-the-jews-an-antisemitic-tirade-at-an-arizona-school-board-meeting-spurs-a-response-and-debate-over-it

[3]https://www.vox.com/22256258/marjorie-taylor-greene-jewish-space-laser-anti-semitism-conspiracy-theories

[4] Torah Gems, vol. I, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg and translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1992), p. 265.

[5] Torah Gems, p. 264

[6] https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/when-do-we-know-weve-completed-struggle

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