Parshas Vayishlach (5773)
Last year I went with my family to New York City during the “holiday season” to visit family. One day just before Xmas, we were walking down Fifth Avenue and admiring all the beautifully decorated store windows when I noticed a particular display in one of Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows which caught my attention.
It was a typical “holiday” scene with a mother and her young daughter dressing the Xmas tree with all kinds of ornaments and decorations – and next to the tree on a table stood a brightly lit menorah. On the wall just behind the menorah there was a sign that said “Happy Everything!”
At first I thought it was quite comical – and maybe even kind of nice to see - that although we live in a predominantly Christian society, the department store was trying to be sensitive to people of other religions who don’t celebrate Xmas.
After thinking about it a little more, I have come to realize that this “Happy Everything!” sensitivity that is so prevalent in Western society today is really to the Jewish people’s spiritual detriment. And let me explain why….
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayishlach, we find our forefather Jacob preparing to face his twin brother and nemesis Esau, who was out to kill him. Jacob prays to G-d and asks Him, “Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau…” (see Genesis 32:12). The commentators ask why Jacob repeats himself by asking G-d to save him “from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau”? After all, G-d knows that Jacob’s brother’s name is Esau!
Rabbi Yosef Dov Haleivi Soloveitchik ZT”L (whose great-grandson Peter Salovey is the president-elect of Yale University), in his famous commentary Beis Haleivi on the Torah, answers that when Jacob heard that Esau was coming towards him, he realized that his brother would act in one of two ways. Either Esau would attempt to kill him or he would try to appease Jacob and request that they both stay together forever as good brothers should. And Jacob was afraid of both these possibilities. He certainly didn’t want to fight with his brother and put his life in jeopardy, but even worse than that would be for him to have to live near his evil brother Esau, whose bad influence might put his soul in jeopardy. So Jacob prayed to G-d first to save him “from the hand of his brother”, i.e. from Esau acting to him like a brother and befriending him, and then he prayed to be saved “from the hand of Esau”, meaning from Esau acting as his enemy and trying to kill him.
The great leaders of Israel throughout the centuries and millennia were always concerned – just as Jacob before them - when the Jewish people were allowed equal rights and privileges. This is because they understood that while it is certainly tragic when Jews are persecuted and killed by anti-Semites, descendants of Jacob’s arch-enemy Esau, it is far, far worse when they are embraced by the nations around them, who are acting like Jacob’s loving brother, for this always leads to assimilation and intermarriage and the loss of so many Jewish souls.
It is well known that the first Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi ZT”L, as well as Rabbi Yisroel Hopsztajn ZT”L, the holy Kozhnitzer Maggid, both prayed for the victory of the Czar of Russia over Napoleon and his army – and this in spite of the fact that Napoleon promised equal rights for all peoples including the Jews. These great leaders foresaw the spiritual danger facing the Jewish people were they to be fully embraced by the non-Jewish society around them. We have only to look at the history of the emancipated Jews of Western Europe after Napolean – where a good majority of them assimilated and were lost to the Jewish people forever – to realize just how right these two Rabbis were.
And in our own times, when we have witnessed the anti-Semitism of Esau’s descendants, the Nazis (may their names be blotted out), who took the lives and exterminated the bodies of a third of our people in a “Holocaust of Hate”, we must also realize (as difficult as it is to say this) that we have lost far, far more Jewish souls to assimilation and intermarriage in North America alone over the past 60 years in what some have dubbed the “Holocaust of Love”.
This is what came to my mind after I began to think about that “Happy Everything” sign I saw in the Saks Fifth Avenue shop window last winter. North America is so kind, friendly and embracing – and even sensitive – to us Jews, not wanting to make us feel uncomfortable by having to see a “Merry Xmas!” sign during the holiday season. And it is truly wonderful for the Jewish people to finally be able to live in a place where we are relatively safe from anti-Semitism and persecution – and for that we have to be eternally grateful to our host country. We have left the ghetto and we are not looking back, and that’s a good thing.
Yet it is precisely because our host country is so embracing and hospitable to us, that we have to be wary of what our forefather Jacob feared so many millennia ago when his brother Esau was coming to meet him – that we will be influenced by the nations around us to forget about and to abandon our Judaism, as so many Jews have done in North America over the past century.
We Jews must always remember who we are, and sometimes a little reminder - such as a sign that says “Merry Xmas!” instead of “Happy Everything!” or even a little anti-Semitic remark directed to us – goes a long way to accomplishing that goal.