Foreshadowing Antisemitism

This week's Dvar Torah on Parashat Toldot / Generations is based upon a Dvar Torah from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that I have adapted.  

Photo by Denys Argyriou on Unsplash

Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, Poway and Monsey… and now we add the Gaza Envelope communities on October 7th in Israel— a litany of names associated with antisemitism over the past five years.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out an interesting phrase in Parashat Toldot that foreshadows the antisemitism we are seeing today.


Yitzhak / Isaac is living in the Land of Israel and following the path that his father Abraham had set for him. The Torah states (Bereishit / Genesis 26:12-16):


Yitzhak / Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him. The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. He had so many flocks, herds, and servants that the Philistines envied him. So all the wells that his father's servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.


Then the local king said to Yitzhak / Isaac, "Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us."


Centuries later, at the beginning of the book of Shemot / Exodus, the Israelites are living freely in Egypt and then Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, says (Shemot / Exodus 1:9):


"Behold, the people of the children of Israel are greater in number and power than we are."


The same word, atzum, "power / powerful," appears in both cases.


Following Pharoah's statement, the Jews are enslaved.


Rabbi Sacks emphasizes that this passage signals the birth of one of the deadliest of human phenomena -- antisemitism.


Those same kernels of antisemitism from 3,500 years ago are tragically still with us.


There is a second aspect of this passage that has had reverberations through the centuries: the self-destructive nature of hate.


Notice that when the Philistines encountered the wells that Isaac had dug out, they didn't ask Yitzhak / Isaac to share his water with them.


They didn’t ask him to teach them how he (and his father) had discovered a source of water that they - residents of the place - had not.


They didn’t even ask him to simply move on.


They "stopped up" the wells, "filling them with earth," which harmed them more than it harmed Yitzhak / Isaac.


It robbed them of a resource that would have become theirs once the famine had ended and Isaac had returned home.


As Rabbi Sacks reminds us: More than hate destroys the hated, it destroys the hater.


The same thing happened in Egypt centuries later. Pharoah refuses to let the Israelites go free and when the land of Egypt was afflicted with a plague of locusts, Pharaoh's officials said to him (Shemot / Exodus 10:7):


"Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is [already] ruined?"


In effect, the servants tell Pharaoh: You may think you are harming the Israelites, but actually, you are harming your own people and your own land even more!


In Midrashic commentary (Bereishit Rabbah 55:8), Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai teaches that both love and hate "upset the natural order" (in Hebrew: mekalkelet et hashurah).


Hate and love lead to irrational actions.


They make us do things we would not do otherwise.


In today's Middle East, as so often before, terrorists who are intent on destroying their enemies end up doing greater harm to their own interests and their own people.


Isaac's response remains the correct one today.


Defeated once, Isaac tries again.


He digs another well; this too brings opposition.


So he moves on and tries again, and eventually finds peace.


How fitting it is that the town that today carries the name Isaac gave the site of this third well - Rehovot -meaning wide open spaciousness-- is the home of the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University, which has developed world class scientific innovations that have helped people live better lives all over the world.


So what can we learn from this parsha for ourselves?


3 things:


  1. While Jewish power is what anti-Semites complain about, like most haters and bullies, they feel emboldened to take action when they perceive signs of weakness. So we must not be weak. Thinking that if only there weren't a State of Israel, all that hate against Jews would go away is exactly the wrong conclusion. Precisely the opposite.
  2. Like love, hatred is irrational by nature. It doesn't make sense and is fueled with contradictory ideas- the media is increasingly anti-Israel and yet, “the Jews control the media.” Or we should all hate one another based upon the amount of melatonin in our skin. Totally irrational.
  3. We learn that we must persist and keep pursuing what we know is right. In the face of evil, we must continue to believe and work towards what Dr. Martin Luther King taught us all -- the long arc of history inclines towards justice.


As the Jewish national anthem reminded Jews long before it became the Israeli national anthem - Od lo avda tikvateinu, we have not yet lost our hope! Nor will we.


Let our fears become the seeds for renewed faith in our mission of tikkun olam b'malchut shaddai- the perfection of the world through our spiritual path that reminds each of us to strive, not just for generic kindness and goodness, but for holiness, bringing the Divine to earth and elevating ourselves to cleave to the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom