QUITE apart from the evil of anti-Semitism — the incessant murder of Jews, or prejudice against them — is it not odd that one people throughout history has been picked on in this way?
And is this not doubly odd, given that the Jews see themselves as the chosen people?
Netziv (1816-1892) addresses this paradox in this week’s Torah portion. In so doing, he identifies the the basic cause of anti-Semitism, as well as its ultimate failure.
We may move into Netziv’s explanation with a series of questions:
What is more likely to earn your admiration: A person who inherits millions and turns them into billions (the late Marvin Davis, for instance); or a person who grew up in modest circumstances and founded a multi-billion dollar company (Steve Jobs, for instance)?
What is more likely to surprise you: A person who grew up in the highest diplomatic and political echelons, and became president of the US (JFK, for instance); or a person not born into privilege who became a female head of state (Golda Meir, for instance)?
What is more likely to catch your attention: A person who trained day and night, sacrificing every comfort and social interaction, to become an Olympic gold medalist; or an amputee who also won a gold medal (albeit not in the regular Olympics), running the race on one artificial leg?
What is more likely to confirm your expectation: A Harvard graduate, summa cum laude, who wrote a book that changed the world (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn) — a parallel achievement: a person whose father was a major scholar whose son revolutionized Talmudic study (Chaim Soloveitchik, for instance) — or a sports writer who wrote a book that sold millions of copies and deeply affected millions of people (Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom, for instance)?
As great as the people in the first half of the questions are, the people mentioned in the second half of the questions trump them in terms of the human “wow” response. Something that goes against the grain elicits a greater human response.
ANTI-Semitism, writes Netziv, is the response to the unexpected.
Anti-Semitism may begin as a struggle over land, and Jews lost their land in antiquity twice, but it was not this that defines anti-Semitism in its harshest, most persistent form. Once the ancient Babylonians and Romans removed the Jews from Canaan and took over the land, these persecutors retained little interest in the Jews. The persistent anti-Semitism is that in the Jewish exile.
It persists as a response to the unexpected: the Jewish claim that the Jews are especially blessed by G-d, that they are the chosen people. Even exiled from their land, the Jews flourish intrinsically, and make enormous contributions to the cultures in which they live.
What elicits a greater human response: A nation that flourishes without obstacles, or a nation that suffers from unspeakable defeats, yet finds a way to flourish? The latter — the Jewish people.
A successful nation that has little or nothing to overcome in order to be successful may be compared to the persons in the first half of the questions above. You inherit millions. You turn them into billions. Surely an unusual accomplishment, but not nearly so notable as the accomplishment of Steve Jobs.
Jews have won Nobel Prizes far out of proportion to the their numbers. The contributions of the Jewish people are analogous to Steve Jobs’ contribution. Anti-Semitism is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. Jews are acknowledged as the blessed of G-d precisely because they are persecuted. Were the Jews able to achieve great things living in comfort and peace, never persecuted, they would hardly be noticed. Anti-Semitism is the evidence for the Divine Providence over the Jewish nation.
NETZIV sees all this in a verse or two in this week’s Torah portion.
“Your seed shall be like the dust of the earth . . . ” (Genesis 28:14).
Netziv observes: This cannot mean that the descendants of Jacob will multiply uncountably, since that blessing was already given to the descendants of Jacob’s grandfather Abraham in Gen. 15:5.
Rather, to be like the dust of the earth means that the seed of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs — the Jewish people — will be like dust. Lowly. Conquered. Dirt. Yet, the same verse concludes:
“ . . . and you shall break out westward, eastward, northward and southward, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you, and through your seed.”
No matter how cruelly the nations in the exile trample the Jewish people, the Jews shall flourish in every direction, and by doing so bless the nations of the earth. Anti-Semitism creates the paradoxical condition out of which Jews make seminal contributions and, even more important, through which Divine Providence is manifest.
Which nation will appear most amazing, the one blessed with natural resources and peace, such as Switzerland; or the one blessed with little resources and a cruel fate, yet consistently successful in countless arenas over the millennia, such as the Jewish people?
Anti-Semitism both causes the Jews’ problems and highlights their achievements and chosenness.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News