When to Fight — By Ben

I must have sat staring at my computer for about 20 minutes trying to decide whether to message my friend or not. Of course by friend, I mean someone I knew a decade ago and their posts still show up in my Facebook feed. My Facebook friend had posted the following meme.

Captioned below the meme was the following.

This wasn’t about whether I should launch into a discussion concerning whether President Trump is an antisemite or the greatest friend Israel has ever known. What I was on the verge of asking my friend was, “I see you’re concerned about the safety of the Jewish people. Question, why didn’t you post anything about the shooting at the Jersey City Kosher market the day before?”

When To Fight

In this week’s parsha Vayishlach, Yaakov prepares for a fight. After decades in exile, four weddings, twelve children, and a whole lot of sheep herding, Yaakov is ready to face his brother Esav. He makes efforts to appease him with gifts but after a less than promising report from his messenger angels, Yaakov knows it will likely come to blows.

Yaakov actually doesn’t end up fighting his brother per se, but he does wrestle with a spiritual representation of him. So it seems that Yaakov isn’t afraid to put up a fight. In fact, he seems rather strong physically. In last week’s parsha alone he manages to move a rock covering a well that otherwise would require 10 men. (Bereishis 29:8-10). Later in this parsha, Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi will decimate an entire town all on their own.

So given Yaakov’s physical might, why does he put up with his Uncle Lavan? The man who switched wives on him under the chuppah, who weaseled out of paying him over 100 times, who manipulates Yaakov to stop him from leaving at all costs. Why is Yaakov letting his uncle get away with everything when he can clearly mop the floor with him?

Time for a little Pirkei Avos

In the Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of Mishniac statements that make for great motivational posters, Rabbi Judah ben Tema says the following;

Be strong as a leopard, and swift as an eagle, and fleet as a gazelle, and brave as a lion, to do the will of your Father who is in heaven. He used to say: the arrogant is headed for Gehinnom and the blushing for the garden of Eden. May it be the will, O Lord our God, that your city be rebuilt speedily in our days and set our portion in the studying of your Torah. (Pirkei Avos 5:23-34)

In a nut shell Rabbi Judah is saying one should have these bold character traits. However, at the end is a prayer asking God to rebuild Jerusalem. That last part is odd because Pirkei Avos doesn’t have prayers. They are ethics, moral laws, cataloging of our heritage, but not prayer. Except this singular mishneh. To account for this oddity, Rabbi Shalom Gold says that the Jews are only able to have these confrontational character traits when we are in the land of Israel.

With that in mind, now Yaakov’s pacifism makes more sense. With Lavan he was living in the land of Charan. It’s only when he crosses back into Israel that he’s confronted by the angel of Esav. Similarly, Abraham almost single handedly wins the war of the 4 Kings vs the 5 Kings to save his nephew Lot. But when his wife is taken by Pharaoh in Egypt, Abraham has to wait for God to intercede to get Sarah back. In the story of Purim, Esther begs King Ahasverus to allow the Jews to defend themselves from onslaught in the Persian capital. But during Chanukah, a few Maccabees are able to fight a guerrilla war against the armies of Greece in the Jewish homeland.

The Cost of Jewish Blood

During the centuries of the diaspora, the Jews have suffered bitter and distressing persecution and the world has rarely cared. Expulsion, forced conversion, burning of sanctuaries, blood libels, pogroms… below is a list of persecutions from the 17th century alone.

See the full list here.

It was only after the Holocaust and the founding of the modern state of Israel that, for the first time in History, attitudes started to change. When five countries teamed up to expel the Jews, against all odds, the Jews won their independence. When Palestinian terrorists massacred 11 Israeli Olympians in Munich in 1972, Israel launched Operation Wrath of God refusing to remain helpless as it had in the centuries before. Fortunately in recent decades, Jews have suffered lower levels of antisemitism and been able to participate in society with wealth, influence, and education. And when tragedy strikes there is sympathy, condemnation of the acts, and shows of solidarity for the victims. Most of the time. According to the Rabbi I learn with, our presence in the land of Israel is the source of this strength and tentative acceptance.

Tentative Times

I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this executive order declaring Judaism as a nationality. On one hand, I do believe that Judaism is both a religion and a nationality. And though I do feel we are distinct, no matter how much some of us want to believe otherwise, it does bother me to be labeled as such by a government. There’s a lot I strongly dislike about the President, but to accuse him of antisemitism is absurd. However, that doesn’t mean a future administration will share his support.

Glaring at the Jude meme which clearly compared Trump to Adolf Hitler, I wanted to tell my friend to stop using my people’s history, alienation, and darkest tragedy for his own political posturing. That, if he really cared about the Jews, he’d have at least acknowledged the shooting to promote unity, awareness, or even gun control. Or at best reached out to me and asked how I felt about it or the President’s executive order.

I ended up messaging him. I asked him how he was doing. We talked a little about both letting our artistic pursuits get away from ourselves. He suggested an app for helping with concentration. Maybe I’ll give it a try. But ultimately, I knew if I had brought up the post, it would have done more to divide than mend.

Just because one might have the reason to fight and even some good ammunition to back it up, doesn’t mean they should. Yaakov goes above and beyond to make peace with Esav, offering a fortune and relentlessly subverting his honor. Though he prepares for war, it’s only as a last resort. Even if he knows he will easily win. Sometimes being right wins the fight, but in the end loses the war.

As we are still processing yet another tragedy, the third Jewish targeted shooting in fourteen months, tensions are high and feelings are raw. I’ll go to shul this Shabbos and hear another special sermon which will attempt to bring comfort and instruct how to move forward. Sadly it’s starting to feel routine. But as disheartening and distressing as Jersey City is, it’s nothing compared to what our people have suffered in the past. Before, not only would such evil be tolerated, it would be legislated. That change, if my Rabbi is to be believed, comes from our presence in Israel. Whether that is true or not, at least for the first time in modern history, should antisemitic fervor rise again, (God forbid) at least we have a homeland in which to seek refuge.

This post is dedicated to the victims of the Jersey City Kosher market. May their neshamas have an aliyah.

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