Defining Ourselves

Friday, 13 December, 2019 - 6:30 am

It’s a story we are, tragically, all too familiar with.

Jews are singled out for murder. Just because they are Jews.

We are still reeling from the horrific attack in Jersey City. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.

Yes, anti-Semitism still exists. Yes, until Moshiach comes, it will continue in some form. And, no, it’s not limited to one type of perpetrator. History has proven there are many varying sources of such hatred. History has also proven that Jews have never been spared its venom.

Instead of merely asking – and working toward – how we can end anti-Semitism, it’s also import to ask another question: If it’s here, how should I – internally – handle it? What feelings – and response – does it evoke? Indignation? Despair? Activism? Assimilation?


This week’s parsha Vayishlach offers a prologue to the centuries of conflict between the children of Israel and her adversaries. The original Israel, Yaakov, has two confrontations. One is with an angel, who wrestles with him. Another is with his brother Eisav (Esau), who previously sought to murder him.

In both instances, Yaakov manages to escape harm – barely. Eisav sends an army of 400 men.

The angel wrestles with Yaakov. As a result, Yaakov’s sciatic nerve is injured.

In fact, one of the kosher laws – the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve of kosher animals – is due to this confrontation. As the Torah states, “Therefore, the children of Israel may not eat the displaced tendon, which is on the socket of the hip, until this day, for he touched the socket of Yaakov’s hip, in the hip sinew.”

The Sefer HaChinuch explains the significance of this mitzvah:

This mitzvah serves as a reminder to the Jewish people that though they will suffer many hardships in their exiles, at the hands of the nations and at the hands of the children of Eisav, they should be confident that they will never be wiped out.


Imagine that G-d encoded in the Torah – thousands of years ago – a virtual guaranty that we would continue to contend with what has become the world’s longest established and most consistent hatred. Why would G-d want to create a nation – none less than His chosen nation – on the premise of endless hatred directed toward them?

We can never truly understand G-d’s mysterious ways. And, we pray daily for the eradication of this – and other – evils.

But, perhaps, Yaakov’s encounter is designed to serve as a remedy for us as Jews. If we are to perpetually deal with this scourge, we ought to have the guidance, tools and strength to do so.

Yaakov marched onward. The angel’s legacy is but a few verses in the Torah. Yaakov’s legacy is the rich tradition and contribution that he and his descendants have gifted to this world.

Similarly, Yaakov successfully avoided disaster with his brother. But, he did not define himself by overpowering Eisav. He did not even define himself by escaping Eisav’s wrath. Yaakov defined himself by who he was and what he was meant to accomplish, not by the troubles others sought to impose upon him. He immediately set out to continue his hallowed expedition, exactly according to the pact he had made earlier with G-d.

This mitzvah serves as a constant reminder of the Jewish approach to anti-Semitism. Though it will always be there, it will never define us. We will need to contend with it just as Yaakov limped away from that encounter. But, our identity is a positive one, a rich mission of values and sacred acts.

The moment we allow our Jewishness to be defined by our enemies is the moment we have reduced ourselves to recipients of history. But, we are divinely designed to be more than that. Our duty is to determine history, to shine a light for ourselves and others.

It’s true that – absent the arrival of Moshiach – anti-Semitism will be a fact of life. But, it’s also true that we will never succumb to it. We will rally against it, but never lose faith because of it.

As we mourn the loss of a brother, a sister, a stranger, a courageous officer, we also rededicate ourselves to live more Jewishly. To learn from the Chanukah lights, and influence this world with more goodness and holiness.

And, yes, there will be a day when this problem no longer exists. We pray for that time many times each day. May Hashem have mercy on us all and make today that day!

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