IT'S NOT US VS. THEM
There is an incredibly common feeling among Jews. The feeling is one of us versus them, Jews versus the world.
There is an incredibly common feeling among Jews. The feeling is one of us versus them, Jews versus the world. Many people use such a belief as a guideline for their own behavior. Some Jews, unfortunately, view Gentiles as if they are on a lower stature. Somehow cheating them isn't seen as a bad thing and somehow their charities aren't seen as valid recipients of our gifts. As the saying goes, "we take care of our own. There are enough of them to take care of themselves." After all, the reasoning goes, they are against us, and they've shown it time and again. So, the sentiment goes, we should basically treat them like they treat us -- badly.
This week’s Torah portion shows us that this approach is fundamentally flawed.
Among the many commentaries I heard at the various sheva brachot (the seven nights of celebration) following my wedding last week were a few that defined this week’s Torah portion as a turning point in Jewish history. With this portion, the Jews become a nation. Beforehand, we were individuals -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the brothers. Now, with the death of Joseph and Jacob, the Jewish nation is born.
And what happens? As the Torah states, "The Jewish people were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong -- very, very much so; and the land became filled with them." And then, just like that, the Jews were enslaved. We see no partisan resistance. We see no fighting. One day they are strong and BAM!, the next day they are slaves. What happened? The answer is pretty simple. The Egyptian king defined the battle as us versus them and, overnight, the Jewish nation lost.
The lesson to be learned is a simple one. When it comes to us versus them, we lose. We are weaker, less numerous, and in no position to do battle with the rest of the world. Some may think our educations give us the upper hand, but if you want a battle it eventually comes down to fists, and in that category we are defenseless. We only managed to prosper in Egypt because of extensive help from Hashem. We only managed to leave because of Hashem's support.
Should we expect the same level of support from Hashem today? Yes and no. Not because it won't come. The wars in Israel have been miraculous victories, but because one of the tenets of our faith is to take care of ourselves without assuming help from Hashem. So, what are we to do? We can't have a battle of us versus them because we'll lose. And yet, as Durban and other events show, the world still seems to hate us. Are we to just take it and, to use a Christian term, forever turn the other cheek?
The answer is no. This week’s Torah portion presents a beautiful symmetry with the present conflicts in Afghanistan and Israel. In this portion, the Jews became a nation. In today's world, the U.S. and Israel are breaking the standard definition of a nation down. The U.S. knows that the Afghan people aren't the enemy just as the U.S. knew that the Russian people weren't the enemy during the Cold War. The enemy was the leadership of those countries. With a confidence that comes from being right, the U.S. worked to undermine the USSR and the Taliban with a superior philosophy that they knew would attract the bulk of the people. In short, the U.S. redefined an enemy nation as a friendly nation with enemy rulers. This is a strategy we can learn from.
The majority of Gentiles don’t instinctively hate Jews. There are those who do not hate us, there are those who have learned to hate us, and then there is the small majority that was born to hate us. If we want a battle of us versus them the battle can't be against the bulk of humanity. We would lose in a heartbeat. Instead, the bulk of humanity, including those who have been taught to hate us, must be seen as a friendly nation with enemy rulers. Why are they a friendly nation? Because we have a great deal to offer them through our vision of the world. The Russian people may have been taught to hate the U.S. because of jealousy for its material wealth. Nonetheless, given the chance, the Russian people preferred to join us than continue under their own broken system.
Jews are hated by many people who have been taught to do so by those who surround them. The vast majority of these types of people have never even met a Jew. However, such hate is reversible. I remember a few months back when my brother invited some Pakistani graduate students and their families to Shabbat dinner. Living in Portland, these families hadn't been out of the house for dinner in months. They accepted our offer, delighted to have the opportunity to enjoy some Halal food outside the home. I was wearing my standard Shabbat suit. When I came back from prayer services, my first impression of the children was that they were tremendously frightened. I was the boogieman that their fellow schoolkids and teachers in Pakistan had told them about. That night we played some games, ate some good food, and watched the kids’ eyes widen with wonder as we recited the Kiddush and sang a few beautiful Shabbat songs. They had never been in a Jewish home. The Pakistani kids left that night after writing a note on our whiteboard, "We had a great time, thank you." Now, there are six very religious Muslim kids living in Pakistan who have met Jews and who know that we aren't evil monsters who drink their blood. They might tell others their story. This is a small feat, but an illuminating one.
One of our jobs in this world is to make it a better place -- for Jews and non-Jews alike. One of our jobs is to make this world a holy place that is ready for Mashiach (Messiah). One of our jobs is to be "a light unto the nations." Our greatest tool in this task is the mass of humanity, which can be allied with our cause.
Our enemy is not the world, but the proverbial nation of Amalek. Amalek is the counterpart to Augustine's City of God. Scattered throughout the world, they are one nation, a nation united by their hatred of Jews and their hatred of goodness. They may have no physical connection, but they have a connection nonetheless. Those of the nation of Amalek are all too often the leaders of what could be friendly nations. Like the U.S. in Afghanistan and Russia, we must separate the nation of Amalek from the nations it has associated with. We must work diligently to bring the nations to holiness and to isolate and eliminate those leaders who stand in unshakable opposition to us.
This task isn't easy. It involves identifying the enemy carefully. As the U.S. is learning, it involves on the ground intelligence. We can't from afar make friends and identify enemies. We must be in the trenches -- inviting people to Shabbat dinner is a good start. This is how we make friends. The other part of the mission involves publicizing those who hate us in order to neutralize them.
Fighting a war against our enemies in this fashion, fighting a war against the nation of Amalek and not against all the nations, means that we must not cheat Gentiles because they are not Jews. It means we must not see Gentiles as somehow second rate. It means we must not see non-Jewish charities as unimportant. Some of the behavior of Jews who otherwise lead good lives is incredibly unfortunate. Yes, some Gentiles nations have persecuted us and hated us and mistreated us. And yes, if we were a normal nation, we would go to war with them. But we are not a normal nation. We are G-d’s chosen people. We are Augustine's City of God. Our job is to make the world holy -- in order to do so we must hold back our desire for blind retaliation.
Making enemies of the entire world, however justifiable such an approach might be, is a losing strategy. As the U.S. is learning, the vast majority of people can be our allies and our friends; only a small minority must remain our enemies. In such a war, against the nation of Amalek, and not against all who are not Jews, the world will be a better place for us and for them.
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