Be a Light in the Face of Anti-Semitism
Parashat Vayechi 2020/5780
So, I must begin by begging your indulgence. I am compelled to speak on a topic that has weighed heavily on my heart ever since Hanukkah. Hashem has blessed me with this opportunity to speak today and with a parashah that I could tie into my topic, but this will not be your normal Vayechi Dvar Torah. I will not be talking about the deaths of Jacob or Joseph, nor about Jacob’s blessings on the 12 tribes, nor the blessing of Menashe and Ephraim. Instead, I will be talking about what happened after Jacob’s death AND what is happening now.
Be a Light in the Face of Anti-Semitism
And Jacob lived (Genesis 47:28)
The last two festivals to be added to the Jewish calendar prior to modern times — Purim and Hanukkah — are both about anti-Semitism. There is one obvious difference between them: Haman, of the Purim story, wanted to kill Jews. Antiochus, of the Hanukkah story, wanted to kill Judaism. It was like the difference between Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism.
But there is another difference that has renewed salience after the horrifying knife attack in Monsey, N.Y. What saved Jews at Purim was behind-the-scenes influence: Esther’s influence in the royal court. But the danger of anti-Semitism remained. What if hatred returned and this time there was no Esther around to save the Jews? That is one reason, according to the Talmud, why we do not say Hallel on Purim.
On Hanukkah, by contrast, Jews fought back and won. The Maccabees became a symbol of Jewish activism, of refusing to live in fear. And to remember this, the Hanukkah menorah is lit where it is publicly viewable, like in a window facing the street, to publicize the miracle. Hanukkah tells us not to curse the darkness, but instead to bring light to the world. It tells us to fight back and not be afraid.
The shocking events in Monsey, NY, together with those in Jersey City, Poway, and Pittsburgh, on our college campuses, and in towns and cities across our country, are proof that the darkness is returning. It has come to America and is settling into virtually every corner of Europe. That this should have happened within living memory of the Shoah, after more than half a century of Holocaust education and anti-racist legislation — is almost unbelievable. And it is particularly traumatic that this is happening here, in the United States, the country where Jews have felt more at home than anywhere else in the Diaspora.
So why is this happening? When did it all start? And what can we do?
Let’s return to the Torah and see what we can see.
When reading a Torah scroll, we notice that apart from the lack of punctuation of any kind, the text is divided into paragraphs of sorts—both open and closed. Yet, the opening of today’s Parashah Vayechi doesn’t start at a new paragraph. Rather, the reading begins in the middle of a paragraph, in what’s called a parashah setumah—“a closed paragraph.” Rashi wonders why and suggests, “For when Jacob our father died, the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed because of the affliction of the bondage which [the Egyptians] began to enslave them.”
But Rashi’s answer begs another question: the Israelites would not be physically enslaved by the Egyptians for another century. So, what subjugation is Rashi referring to that they endured following the death of Jacob? Later sages explain that while the Jews were not physically enslaved yet, they nonetheless suffered the “anguish of subjugation—for Egypt sought to subjugate them” through verbal means. Even when they were not literally enslaved, following Jacob’s death the Jews were degraded, threatened and intimidated.
Consider, Joseph had impoverished the Egyptian people, collecting their wealth, their livestock, their crops, and their land to establish Pharaoh’s undisputed ownership of all. Ostensibly, for the purpose of providing food for everyone during the massive droughts and while it did that, it also gave the Egyptian people cause to hate Joseph and his people, who were spared from the wealth redistribution and instead were given the fertile land of Goshen. Subsequently, the Egyptians would begin acting out against the Jews in their land. I imagine it started with grumbling and complaints. Who are these Jews that they shouldn’t suffer as we do? It would have escalated to threats and intimidation, and finally, to outbursts of violence. Eventually, Pharaoh would have had to either act in defense of the Jews or in alliance with his people. With Joseph becoming a distant memory, that choice was easy; slaughter and slavery ensued. Debatably, this could be called the first instance of Jew-hatred (a.k.a. anti-Semitism) and the first “Jewish solution.”
Historically, the most important factor in the rise of anti-Semitism is the sense among a group that the world as it is now is not the way it used to be, or ought to be. And in our Egyptian example post-Jacob, this was certainly the case.
One other factor must be added. When bad things happen, some people ask, “What did I do wrong?” They put their house in order. But others ask, “Who did this to me?” They cast themselves as victims and search for scapegoats to blame.
The scapegoat of choice has long been the Jews. We are the archetypal outsiders. It is easy to blame Jews because we are conspicuous, because we are a minority, and because we are there.
Anti-Semitism has little to do with Jews — we are its object, not its cause — and everything to do with dysfunction in the communities and people that harbor it.
Today, Jews throughout Europe and now increasingly in America are experiencing, by and large, the same type of subjugation as the Israelites experienced in Egypt after Jacob: threats, intimidation, and unfortunately, acts of violence. Recently, former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was quoted as saying, “I have to tell you that what we grew up with, ‘never again,’ is beginning to sound like ‘ever again.’ And at the heart of it is hostility to Israel. Of course, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. But make no mistake about what has happened. In the Middle Ages Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were hated because of their race. Today, when it’s no longer politically correct to hate people for their religion or their race, today Jews are hated because of their state. The reason or excuse changes, but the hate stays the same. Anti-Zionism is a new anti-Semitism.”
Yesterday marked the 10th of Tevet, originally designated as a minor fast to commemorate the siege of Jerusalem during the First Temple era. In December 1948, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate designated the tenth of Tevet as a day of mourning and communion with Holocaust victims, designating this day as the yahrzeit for those who perished whose exact date of death is unknown. As we honor their memories and recite Kaddish on behalf of the victims of the very worst form of anti-Semitism, we must also renew our own commitment to work to ensure that “never again” really does mean “never again.”
We must strengthen security in Jewish venues and develop habits of vigilance and safety. Just as the Maccabees did, we must eliminate the perception of Jews as soft targets. Next, we must recognize that while we have enemies, we also have friends. In Britain, non-Jews came out in support and defeated the candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister, a man who made his party a safe haven for anti-Zionists and anti-Semites. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel forcefully and regularly condemns anti-Semitism in the strongest terms. And just this past Sunday here in New York, we saw over 25,000 people march in solidarity with Jews in the “No Hate, No Fear” solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge. This was a dramatic show of cross-faith unity after the string of bloody anti-Semitic attacks around Hanukkah. Religious groups of all varieties and denominations, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others joined with Jews of all stripes and affiliations to stand up and say that hate which begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews. Let me give you an example, Ismael Claudio, bishop of the Pentecostal Church of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn said, "An attack on any house of worship is an attack on all houses of worship," and, "I'm standing with my Jewish brothers and sisters. Today [it's] them: tomorrow, might be us."
Even an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian group joined the march while stating on their Facebook page that the fight against anti-Semitism is part of the fight for the collective liberation for all people.
It is our lot to be a light to the nations and unfortunately, there are those who are afraid of the light. They thrive in the darkness creating chaos and pain. Yeshua said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10)
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)
My charge to you is to remember the message of Hanukkah and fight back. Don’t be afraid but stand up with pride as a Jew and as followers of Yeshua. Make safe choices and be vigilant. And instead of escalating hate with hate, let us do as Yeshua commands and “Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” (Matt 5:4)
For Jeremiah said, “But the Lord is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble; they will not overcome me. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten.” (Jer. 20:11)
Such was the fate of the Egyptians. Such was the fate of the Nazis. And such will be the fate of all who stand against Adonai.
Our parasha began with the words, “Vayechi Yaakov – And Jacob lived…”
And so we have… Israel Lives! Am Yisrael Chai!
And so we will continue…
Overcoming the tears and adversity, outliving empires and tyrants, terrorists and bullies. Our spirit is indomitable, fueled by the Ruach. Where others spread darkness and fear, let us - bring light and love.