Jewish World

The Hidden Blessings of Anti-Semitism

“Night Encounter” Copyright © 2019
The painting captures the struggle between the forces of light and darkness as Jacob encounters the angel who, according to Rashi, embodies the spirit of Esav. Their confrontation is framed on one side by a golden angel with wings, and on the other by a dark figure with a sword. In the center, the darkness of the night is illuminated by rays of sunlight, representing the break of dawn that ends the combat. This painting is by artist Yoram Raanan, who was featured in the winter 2018 issue of this magazine.


The topic I want to address today is a bit provocative. And I hope I will not offend anyone’s sensitivities by describing the constructive role of the anti-Semite in the formation of a Jewish identity.

All of us understand, of course, that Hakadosh Baruch Hu created a world of bechirah (free will) and individuals are held accountable for their sins and for the evil they perpetrate. Hitler cannot go to God and say, “If You didn’t want the Jews to die, You wouldn’t have let me do it.” At the same time, Hakadosh Baruch Hu uses the billions of autonomous decisions that people make to advance His own aims in the world. This can be likened to a chess grandmaster who turns all the moves of the opponent to his advantage. Thus, even the destructive evil that people perpetrate can be co-opted by the Ribbono Shel Olam to bring about a necessary, or even positive, outcome. There are lessons to be learned from those who oppress and denigrate us. The lessons may be painful and even devastating, but they are lessons nonetheless. Hence, the hidden blessings of anti-Semitism!

“Be Like the Nations”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, well before the Nazis rose to power, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, in his classic work Meshech Chochmah, described a tragic pattern in our history. In every generation, he said, there are Jews who seek to “be like the nations” and embrace foreign cultures. But the more Jews strive to become like the nations of the world, the more Hashem allows the nations of the world to remind us that we are different. And in what are frighteningly prophetic words, Rabbi Meir Simcha wrote: “Those people who think Berlin is the new Jerusalem will discover that from Berlin will come a churban that will tell Klal Yisrael ‘You are a Jew; you cannot be one of them.’”

Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe used to say that it was easier to be Jewish in Siberia than in suburbia. The Russians didn’t let the Jews forget who they were. In suburbia, Jews can easily abandon their identity and assimilate.

The Chatam Sofer makes the same observation. In the Haggadah we read, “Arami oved avi, vayered Mitzraymah—the Aramean [Lavan] tried to destroy my father Yaakov and [therefore] he [Yaakov] went down to Egypt.” The Chatam Sofer questions this seeming non sequitur: Yaakov Avinu did not descend to Egypt upon leaving Lavan’s house. He actually returned to Eretz Yisrael, where he lived for many years. Why does the Haggadah link these two episodes?

The Chatam Sofer explains that during the brit bein habetarim, Hashem told Avraham, “Ki ger yihyeh zaracha b’eretz lo lahem—Your children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs.” He did not explicitly state that the exile would take place in Egypt. Theoretically, the period of exile could have taken place in any country. That being the case, since Yaakov was already in a state of exile in Lavan’s house, why didn’t he just remain there and allow the decree to be fulfilled in that way?

The answer is that Lavan would have destroyed us in a way that would have been far more devastating than what Pharaoh did. When it says, “Lavan bikesh la’akor et hakolLavan sought to destroy the whole,” according to the Chatam Sofer it doesn’t mean that Lavan wanted to physically destroy Yaakov. Lavan came to Yaakov and said, “Achim anachnu—we’re brothers. Be like us, let’s work together, let’s collaborate,” as opposed to Pharaoh, who basically said, “You’re slaves and we’re going to kill your children.” Being with Lavan would have destroyed Yaakov spiritually, would have destroyed Am Yisrael. Therefore, Hashem had to fulfill the decree of galut in a hostile environment in order for the Jews to preserve their identity. Indeed, it was precisely because of the slavery and oppression that the Jews in Egypt remained separate, keeping their distinctive language and clothing.

And thus, within the darkness of anti-Semitism lies a hidden berachah—the hatred of the nations toward us serves as the ultimate reminder that the Jewish people must remain distinct and apart.

Throughout galut, Jews have been faithful citizens of every country in which they have lived. “Ger v’toshav anochi imachem—I am a stranger and a resident among you,” said Avraham Avinu millennia ago. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik derives from those words a dictum for the Jewish people: “I am a stranger and a citizen among you.” Dina d’malchuta dina. We respect the laws. We contribute to the welfare of every society in which we live. Religious or not, Jews bring berachah in the realms of economics, art, science, et cetera. We’re loyal, we’re supportive, we’re law-abiding. But at the same time, we must be a ger. We must know we are strangers and that the foreign society in which we find ourselves is not truly ours. A Jew must remember—I am different, I have a different mission.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, after Napoleon conquered Europe and turned his sights on Russia, a controversy arose among the Chassidic rebbes: Should the Jews pray that Napoleon should win or that the Czar should win? The Jews living under the Czar endured extreme poverty and terrible suffering. They were only permitted to live in the Pale of Settlement, were required to pay exorbitant taxes and were often evicted from their places of residence. Most tragically, Jewish boys were forcibly taken at a young age and drafted into the Russian army.

Napoleon promised emancipation, the collapse of the ghetto and political and civil rights. He assured the Jews that they would be able to own property and enter various professions that had been closed to them. Not surprisingly, many Jews, including prominent rabbinic figures, felt the lives of the Jews would be vastly improved were Napoleon to triumph. The lone voice of opposition, the da’at yachid, was the Baal HaTanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who preferred the Czar over Napoleon. The Czar, he explained, seeks to destroy our bodies, leaving our neshamot intact. With emancipation, he predicted, Jews would ultimately abandon the Torah.

The Baal HaTanya’s foresight proved true. The Haskalah, the Reform movement and the myriad other secular Jewish movements that rejected Yiddishkeit were essentially the result of the newfound freedoms following the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power a little later on.

While freedom is, of course, a great blessing, and we should be exceedingly grateful for the opportunities we are afforded by living in a free society—be it the United Kingdom, the United States or Eretz Hakodesh—we must recognize that sometimes we need the anti-Semites of the world to remind us of that which we are in danger of forgetting.

The prophet Balaam was one of the earliest anti-Semites. God turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing. “Hen am levadad yishkon—the Jewish people are a nation that dwells alone.” In order for Klal Yisrael to flourish, we must retain our sense of aloneness.

Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe used to say that it was easier to be Jewish in Siberia than in suburbia. The Russians didn’t let the Jews forget who they were. In suburbia, Jews can easily abandon their identity and assimilate.

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, a young journalist in Vienna, Theodor Herzl, covered the notorious Dreyfus trial. He was astounded to discover the depth of the anti-Semitism that permeated European culture. A cultured man, but one who lacked a Jewish education and upbringing, he could not understand how Jew-hatred could persist in modern progressive society. As a result of his experiences, he developed a theory: Jews were hated because they were not like the other nations; if they were to have their own land and their own army, like Germany, France and England, the nations of the world would respect them. Normalization, claimed Herzl, is the key to eradicating anti-Semitism.

History, however, has shown us that the opposite is the case; as the Meshech Chochmah famously predicted, the more we try to “normalize,” the more anti-Semitism grows. And as grateful as we are for the State of Israel, if we ask ourselves honestly whether the creation of the Jewish State eradicated anti-Semitism in the world, the sad answer is: It did not. It did not at all. That is because when we strive to be k’chol hagoyim, like the nations of the world, there will be those who will remind us that we cannot and should not. And we must remain cognizant of the fact that in reminding us, they are, unquestionably, messengers of God. True, these anti-Semites will be punished for their actions since their intentions are evil. Guided by their own free will, they hate us because of their own sinful, immoral inclinations. Yet, God employs even the rasha to teach us what we need to learn.

Approaching Modern Secular Culture

Our forefather Yaakov’s encounter with Esav is the prototype for how we should relate to the nations of the world. Rashi explains that Yaakov Avinu employed three steps in preparation for his encounter with Esav: 1. He sent gifts. 2. He prepared for war. 3. He prayed to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for siyata d’Shmaya. Indeed, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, head of the Sanhedrin and political leader of the Jewish community during the Roman occupation of Eretz Yisrael, would study Parashat Vayishlach before meeting with the Romans. These strategies encapsulate how we should approach the non-Jewish culture.

Gift-giving is a form of embrace. Chazal state, chochmah bagoyim ta’amin—there is wisdom and insight among the nations of the world from which we can benefit. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was a proponent of Torah im derech eretz, engaging with secular wisdom and culture while maintaining strict adherence to Jewish law.

Milchamah, war, represents the opposite approach—namely, that there is much in modern society that is degenerate, corrupt and corrosive, which we must reject.

Taking an extreme all-or-nothing position is wrong, irrespective of which side one chooses. Totally embracing secular modern culture is a colossal mistake. Yet, total rejection is not the answer. If one had to choose between total acceptance and total rejection, the latter is certainly preferable. However, the ideal derech is a path of balance and harmony, where one discerns what to embrace and what to oppose, what to be mekarev and what to be merachek, what to permit into one’s home and what to keep out, et cetera. This approach is certainly the more challenging one, and when choosing this derech, one needs to know that the essential ingredients for success are tefillah and siyata d’Shmaya.

In Maariv on Motzaei Shabbat, to mark the separation between Shabbat and weekdays we add the paragraph “Atah chonantanu . . . vatavdeil Hashem Elokeinu bein kodesh l’chol . . . bein Yisrael la’amimYou have graced us . . . and You have distinguished, Lord, our God, between the sacred and the secular . . . between Yisrael and the nations.” The Gemara in Berachot asks: Why is Havdalah placed in the berachah of Atah Chonein where we ask God for wisdom? The Gemara answers: “Im ein da’at, havdalah minayin?” Havdalah, the ability to distinguish, is not a mechanical, automatic process. One needs wisdom, understanding and discernment in order to determine what is good, what is bad, how to separate between the two and how to distinguish between kodesh l’chol—the holy and the profane. We pray for wisdom in the berachah of “Atah chonein l’adam da’at.” And it is through tefillah that we are granted the ability to discern. Choosing what to embrace and what to reject is a lifelong challenge.

There is more we can learn from the story of Yaakov and Esav. The night before Yaakov is to meet Esav of the flesh, he encounters Esav of the spirit. He fights with this mysterious man, the Sar shel Esav, an angelic figure, and they struggle all night. At times Yaakov is on top and at times the mysterious figure is on top. In the morning Yaakov is finally victorious, but he is limping.

The Sefer HaChinuch interprets this episode beautifully. The night alludes to the long galut that the Jewish people will have to endure, during which enemies will try to destroy us physically and spiritually. Yet Hashem promises that after that long night, dawn will come and the very enemies who tried to destroy us will be forced to bless us, just as the Sar shel Esav was compelled to do. While the Jewish people will survive the long, dark exile, it will not be without sacrifices. Just as Yaakov emerged from the battle limping, we will not emerge from the battle unscathed. The galut is going to take a terrible toll—the segment of Klal Yisrael that will survive to experience the geulah will be decimated and demoralized. But the overriding message of this episode in the parashah is that despite the darkness of the night, dawn will come. Every time we refrain from eating the gid hanasheh, we remember the battle between Yaakov and the angel, and we remind ourselves that despite the current state of despair and darkness, the geulah will come.

The Chofetz Chaim derives two additional teachings from this parashah. Firstly, he asks, why does the angel of Esav—the koach hatumah—only attack Yaakov? Why didn’t Avraham and Yitzchak experience a similar struggle? Pirkei Avot tells us, “Al sheloshah devarim ha’olam omed—the world stands on three pillars”: “Al haTorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al gemilut chasadim— on Torah, service of God [worship] and acts of kindness.” Avraham Avinu represents gemilut chasadim; Yitzchak, who was ready to be a korban, represents avodah; and Yaakov, who spent fourteen years in Yeshivat Shem V’Ever without sleeping, represents the power of Torah learning.

The koach hatumah, explains the Chofetz Chaim, is perfectly willing to let us perform mitzvot if our success will only be short-term and will eventually dissipate. The yetzer hara takes the long view! The Sar shel Esav is not concerned when Jews perform gemilut chasadim without Torah; let them create social welfare institutions, hospitals, cemeteries and Landsmannschaften. After a few generations, their descendants won’t be Jewish anyway. Let them perform avodah, let them build magnificent shuls. The Sar shel Esav did not attack Avraham or Yitzchak because chesed and avodah without Torah cannot sustain the Jewish people. Yaakov, however, who embedded within us the power of Torah, did possess nitzchiyut, eternity.

As a society, we need all three pillars—Torah, avodah and gemilut chasadim. Studying Torah properly will bring one to the other two pillars as well. Gemilut chasadim or avodah alone, on the other hand, will not necessarily bring one to Torah. Simply put, without Torah there is no continuity. Orthodox communities in this country did not begin flourishing until Torah chinuch became widely available. Even if parents are religious and keep mitzvot, they will not succeed in transmitting Yiddishkeit to their children unless they give them a solid Torah education.

If we ask ourselves honestly whether the creation of the Jewish State eradicated anti-Semitism in the world, the sad answer is: It did not. It did not at all.

The second teaching of the Chofetz Chaim based on the episode of Yaakov and Esav is that although the yetzer hara, the Sar shel Esav, wanted to destroy Torah, he was not successful. There will always be Jews who will study Torah despite the hardships and deprivations. On that level, Esav could not win. He did, unfortunately, succeed on another level—the fact that Yaakov emerged limping represents the damage that the Sar shel Esav was able to inflict upon the support of Torah. According to the Zohar Hakadosh, the thigh represents the concept of support, just as the thigh supports the body. The victory of Esav was in weakening the tomchei d’Orayta, the support of Torah. As a result, support for Torah, whether financial or emotional, will always be precarious and weak. In fact, the Chofetz Chaim used to say that if a Torah institution doesn’t have financial problems, one must question whether it is an authentically religious institution!

(Now that doesn’t mean if someone comes to you for tzedakah, you say, “I’m sorry but you were cursed, I’m not supposed to give you.” A number of Christian theologians in the nineteenth century were opposed to women taking anesthesia for childbirth because they believed the curse of Chava necessitated that she give birth in pain; Judaism on the other hand, differentiates between a curse and a commandment. The curse may be the natural condition of the world, but we are certainly permitted and indeed obligated to mitigate the negative consequences. The imperative of supporting Torah is very much the same way. It is our duty to overpower and transcend the curse of Esav. The curse becomes a challenge and a responsibility, rather than an excuse.)

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Chasman, the great mashgiach of the Hebron Yeshiva, presents another insight into the episode with Yaakov and the Sar shel Esav. Before the angel left, Yaakov asked the angel, “Haggidah na shemecha—Tell me your name.” The angel responded, “Lamah zeh tishal l’shmiWhy do you ask my name?” Rashi explains the angel’s reply to mean: “I don’t have a regular name; my name depends on my mission, sometimes I’m this, sometimes I’m that.” Rabbi Chasman understands the verse differently. In his reading, the angel’s name is: “Don’t ask my name.” What sort of name is “Don’t ask my name?”

Rabbi Chasman explains with a parable. A Polish farmer was traveling to the big city for the first time. He was told that if he bought a ticket and sat in a dark room (it was a movie theater), he would see people and animals emerging from the wall. He bought a ticket, took a seat in the dark auditorium, and suddenly he saw people walking towards him. Confused, he pulled out his powerful flashlight and shined it on the wall to see if he could locate the door from which the people were emerging. But when he shined the bright light on the dark wall of the movie screen, he could no longer see the picture, and the people coming towards him disappeared. The crowd in the audience began yelling at him to turn off the light; “We can only see the movie when it’s dark,” they explained.

The meaning of the parable is this: When we sit in darkness in This World without pondering the purpose of our lives, all sorts of illusions appear to be real—money, honor, even grudges we harbor against others. We think they are so real because we are sitting in darkness. Conversely, while you’re sitting in the dark, there might be a bag of diamonds on the next seat that you’re not going to notice. Darkness makes you think that certain things that are not real are real, and it obscures your ability to see things that are real. When you turn on the light, you realize that what you thought was so important was an illusion, and you can see the diamonds next to you.

When Yaakov Avinu asked the angel, “What is your name,” he was in essence asking the yetzer hara, “What is your power over people? How do you entice people to sin?” (A name signifies power. The Arizal explains that at a brit, Hashem gives the parents some element of prophecy to name their child, since a name embodies a child’s potential spiritual power.) And the Sar shel Esav replied, “I entice people because nobody bothers to ask my name! Nobody thinks about me; they are living in darkness.” When they are in darkness, they are fooled.

Anti-Semitism is one of the mechanisms that Hakadosh Baruch Hu employs to “turn on the light,” to make us realize that we must be unique, we must be distinct. We have a mission.

“Let Me Learn From My Enemies”

Even the brazen lies of the anti-Semites contain a musar lesson for us. One of the major issues we face is the ridiculous double standard applied against the State of Israel—countries that literally massacre tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of their own citizens sit in judgment if the IDF accidentally kills a Palestinian civilian. When such an accident occurs, it is regrettable and the IDF itself regrets it; it is indeed the most moral army in the world. Clearly this double standard is unfair and unjust. But even in that hypocrisy and injustice, there’s a message. The nations of the world may not have a right to impose a double standard on us, but we have to impose a double standard on ourselves! It’s not enough to say the other nations are worse. It is not enough to say that we don’t do all the bad things that others do. Hakadosh Baruch Hu says we have to live lives of kedushah, lives of goodness, lives of greatness. So when I hear the double standard hypocrisy of the umot ha’olam, it is a musar for me that I have to strive to be better!

Anti-Semitism is one of the mechanisms that Hakadosh Baruch Hu employs to “turn on the light,” to make us realize that we must be unique, we must be distinct. We have a mission.

And the same is true for the anti-Semitic canard, “Jews control the world and the banking industry.” That too has a lesson to teach us. We do have the power to change the world for the better—through our mitzvot and ma’asim tovim. The Chofetz Chaim used to say that the fashions of Paris can be affected by the Torah learning in Radin. Just as an atom bomb produces waves of radiation thousands of miles from ground zero, goodness has its own ripple effects. It may be that by the time the learning in Radin gets to Paris, people aren’t going to be learning fifteen hours a day, but at least the dresses [designed by Parisian designers] might be a half inch longer. We can make a difference and we therefore must make a difference.

This is essentially the meaning of Dovid Hamelech’s prayer, “me’oyvai techakmeini,” which can be interpreted to mean, “Let me learn from my enemies.” In the hateful, false lies they spread I can find nuggets of musar that challenge me to achieve greatness. May all of us merit b’ezrat Hashem to rise to this challenge.

Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz is a maggid shiur at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem and rav of Kehillat Ohr Somayach. Prior to his family’s aliyah, he was the rabbi of the Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is an edited transcript of a speech Rabbi Breitowitz delivered to a group in London. The editing preserves the informal tone of the presentation.

This article was featured in the Fall 2019 issue of Jewish Action.
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