How to Live As A Sheep Among Wolves
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl.
Leaving his office building at lunchtime; a young businessman would pass the stand of a little old Jewish lady who sold pretzels on a street corner for 25 cents each. He would always leave her a quarter but never take a pretzel. The two of them never spoke.
One day, after 3 years of this routine, the young man passed the old lady’s stand and left his usual quarter; the pretzel lady spoke to him for the first time.
“Sir, you are a good customer and I appreciate your business, but I have to tell you that the price of pretzels has gone up to 50 cents!!!”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man,
His enemies’ say he’s on their land.
They got him outnumbered about a million to one,
He got no place to escape to, no place to run.
He’s the neighborhood bully.
The neighborhood bully just lives to survive,
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive.
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin,
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in.
He’s. . .
The neighborhood bully has been driven out of every land,
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man.
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn,
He’s always on trial for just being born.
He’s. . .
Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized,
Old women condemned him, said he should apologize.
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad.
The bombs were meant for him.
He was supposed to feel bad.
He’s. . .
Well, the chances are against it and the odds are slim
That he’ll live by the rules that the world makes for him,
‘Cause there’s a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac.
He’s. . .
He got no allies to really speak of.
What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love.
He buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side.
He’s. . .
Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace,
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease.
Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly.
To hurt one they would weep.
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep.
He’s. . .
Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone,
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon.
He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand,
In bed with nobody, under no one’s command.
He’s. . .
Now his holiest books have been trampled upon,
No contract he signed was worth what it was written on.
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth,
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health.
He’s. . .
– Bob Dylan
Let’s face it, secular law is at best a civilized form of mob rule. Laws are enacted to suit the majority of people. When minority interests infringe, or are perceived to infringe, upon the majority, the minority is toast. This is true in the most advanced democracies, how much more so in lesser cultural and political environments.
Right or wrong, the minority is often expendable. Who would know this better than the Jewish People – a perpetually estranged minority among the multitude of nations. How then is the Jew able to survive and fulfill his difficult Divine mission in this type of prejudicial atmosphere? What does a Jew do when secular edict and higher divine law are incompatible? The answer lies in the strident odysseys of our forefathers, as depicted in the book of Bereishis – Genesis.
First of the five volumes recorded by Moshe, Bereishis contains few laws or commandments. Indeed, it reads more like a story, or a series of stories, than a code of moral instruction. No wonder many a scholar has classified it as a book of ancient Hebrew folktales.
The Torah commentaries however, are quick to point out that there is more to this narration than simple legend. Jewish tradition views these accounts as being permeated with valuable lessons on multiple levels.
Indeed, the foremost commentator, Rashi, in his opening remark on the Torah, makes the following observation: “The Torah should seemingly not have begun with the book of Bereishis [since the Torah is essentially a tome of laws], but rather with the first command to the nation of Israel – the sanctification of the new moon” – which does not appear until well into the book of Exodus.
“Why then,” asks Rashi, “Does the Torah begin with Bereishis?” The answer, he asserts, is “In order to relate the power of His works to His people, so He may give them the heritage of the nations. For if the nations accuse Israel of banditry for seizing the lands of the seven Canaanite nations, Israel can respond: ‘The entire universe belongs to G-d. He created it and He granted it to whomever he deemed fit. It was His desire to give it to them and then to take it from them and give it to us.’”
In the above light, Israel is actually the only nation on earth that has an explicit Divine claim to its homeland. But the book of Bereishis contains far more by way of Divine revelation than the ownership-title to a given geographical piece of Land.
In addition to the workings of creation, Bereishis is replete with extraordinary narratives regarding each of the saintly patriarchs, matriarchs and the twelve tribal leaders. Each of these accounts retains a wealth of information and instruction about life in general and the Jewish people in particular.
In fact, homiletically expounding the above Rashi, Chassidus broadens the alleged ideological conflict with the “nations,” to include the overall mandate of the Jew as prescribed by Torah – to conquer the materialism of the world and subjugate it to the domain of holiness. “What claim do you have over what belongs to us!” cry the forces of impurity, upon Israel’s endeavor to pry the sparks of holiness away from them, in order to elevate them to holiness.
In answer to their claim the Almighty bequeathed us the book of Bereishis, “In order to relate the power of His works to His people, so He may give them the heritage of the nations” – i.e. the subjugation of the unholy forces.
In the above regard, Genesis is a Divine owners-manual. It contains crucial user information, not the least of which is the timeless reply to the “nations” inbred resistance towards the divine agenda. This explains the sages assertion that “The deeds of the forefather’s are signposts for their offspring.” Judaism perceives the Patriarchs journeys as the blueprint and historical precursor of what was to come. Their story is keenly reflective of our own.
Of all the narratives, the one of Yaakov most resembles the story of the Jewish people and their astonishing historical voyage. Third in the patriarchal dynasty, Yaakov represents the most arduous and protracted battle with the forces of darkness and impurity, the age of our present exile. This may explain why of the many Biblical figures, no one’s life is as transparent as that of Yaakov’s. In fact, the Torah devotes more verses and chapters to Yaakov’s adventure than to the others combined.
We meet Yaakov even before he is born while in his mother’s womb. We come to know him as a young man, a mature adult, and an old man contemplating death. We observe Yaakov interrelating with his parents, his brother, his wives, his children and grandchildren, even with his cunning father-in-law. Each of these anecdotes is replete with relevant messages.
Oddly enough, the portrait of this Biblical giant is of a man embroiled in continual struggle. First there is the protracted battle with his brother Esau, then with his uncle Laban. Finally, he is seen in a nocturnal wrestling match with an obscure spiritual entity. Why is this icon of Jewry’s destiny and fate forever battling?
More disturbing, are some the tactics to which our ancestor resorts as a means of prevailing in his incessant struggles. What for example, are we to make of our sagacious patriarch dressing up in the clothes of Esau in order to secure his father’s blessings?
Some of the antics used to acquire his wealth from Laban are likewise perplexing. And what about his midnight escape from Charan with Laban’s children and grandchildren? Even more puzzling is the fact that the Torah tells us all this. Is this something to be proud of? Is it not fodder for the anti Semites, who are more than happy to use this as proof of the devious character of the Jew? I’ve actually seen Jews squirm when reading these accounts.
The fact of the matter is, and when you read the narratives carefully you will note, that in all his struggles, Yaakov was fighting for what already belonged to him. The sad reality is that the culture in which he found himself had a double standard, one for themselves and one for the estranged Jew. The reality is that Yaakov had to use every bit of creativity and, yes, cunning, be it with Esau or Laban, to get what he had earned fair and square.
Consider the audacious declaration of Laban. After Yaakov toiled twenty hard years under the most grueling conditions for his wives and possessions, only to be cheated repeatedly, Laban declares in cold blood: “The daughters are mine, the children are mine, the cattle are mine, and all that you see here is mine!” Is that not a telling sign of his devious greed and Chutzpah?
His brother Esau was not much better. Having gladly parted with his firstborn responsibilities and even degrading the right, he was ready to kill Yaakov for having claimed what was rightfully his.
The intrinsic message in Yaakov’s legacy of pushing the moral envelope, is that in war there is no highroad. When forced to fight for the core right to exist, there cannot be two standards of morality, one for the enemy and one for oneself. What’s good for the gander is good for the goose. When dealing with a bully you’ve got to play by the bully’s rules. The latter is true not only with regard to our physical survival but with our spiritual survival as well.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe asserts that the voyage of the three ancestors represent three different epochs in human history. Yaakov’s journey, he explains, corresponds to the exile of Edom (Esau), the darkest period in human history, the one in which we currently find ourselves. Yaakov’s story, hence, has particular relevance to our current day and age.
The function of the Jew in the present exile, is to go through life reclaiming the sparks of holiness that are trapped in the ugly clutches of Klipah (impurity) – to return them to their rightful owner, the Creator of heaven and earth. This is accomplished by utilizing worldly possessions in the service of the Almighty.
The Jew goes about his mission – elevating these possessions – happy to play by the same rules as everyone else. But the world seems to say, “Wait! You are not entitled to the same set of laws as the rest of us. For you there is a different set of rules. You must pay a higher price for what you wish to reclaim for G-d.” And even when we pay the highest price they shamelessly turn around and cry, “Thief!”
The overall lesson of Yaakov’s lifelong battles, then, is that the corporeal world is not about to give-up anything on a silver platter. Klipah, i.e. Esau, Laban, and their like, latches on to everything in its path and claims ownership. It will not relinquish anything unless it is outwitted and out-maneuvered.
No matter how much we benefit and enrich the societies and cultures of our host countries, the familiar mantra of Esau and Laban is sounded over and over: “The daughters are mine. . . the cattle is mine. . . all that you see is mine.” In the end it is we the Jewish people who are portrayed as the thieves and the bullies.
In order to fulfill our spiritual mandate – to bring the world under the sovereignty of its legitimate Maker – we are required to muster our outmost ingenuity and even cunning. Fair play is sadly of little help in dealing with the pirates who claim ownership of heaven and earth and everything in between.
Yaakov, the choicest of the ancestors, teaches us that the way to succeed in our mission as Jews, especially in the dark moments of exile, is not by being timid and passive. Quite the contrary, it requires that we put on the clothes of Esau and beat him at his own game – that we fight cunning with cunning and chutzpah with chutzpah.
Further on in our Parsha we learn that after all his battles, “Yaakov arrived ‘Shaleim’ (intact) at the city of Sh’chem.” Rashi points out that the Torah intimates herein that he arrived intact physically, financially, and spiritually. He succeeded in accomplishing his mission of establishing the twelve tribes of Israel unharmed and unscathed by any of the adversaries.
We too, will no doubt accomplish our mission in this long and difficult exile by elevating its riches. We will, no doubt, come away entirely whole, physically, financially and spiritually, with the coming of the righteous redeemer Moshiach.