Humility or Pride: How to Respond to Anti-Semitism?

This week, a former student asked what I thought of his attending a colleague's party on the eve of December 25th. He didn't want to offend, but also didn't feel comfortable accepting the invitation, and wanted to understand the Halchos.

It's an interesting question. A lot has changed in the meaning of these celebrations, to the point that, arguably, it's no longer a religious event at all. Perhaps it is permissible...

But despite the possibility of leniency, I asked this Talmid what they imagined their great-great-grandmother would answer. He has a keen understanding of history, and after thinking for a minute, he responded: “I imagine that she would wait up davening that I came home alive and still Jewish.”

A few moments later, he said “Rebbe, I don't think I'd feel comfortable attending. It's not a place for a proud Jew.”

It might seem strange to us, living in a generation where we have a Jewish State and Jewish Army, but for most of Jewish history, we were practically defenseless. Expressing Jewish national pride was an occupational hazard, and most shied away from it.

Thankfully, we live in a world that no loner burns us on crosses for being Jewish. But I dare say that we still carry the concern that standing up and speaking out will attract unwanted attention.

We have tried to blend and fly under the radar for so long, that being a proud Jew still fits a little awkwardly. (Nothing says “Galus” louder than a polo shirt and Yankee cap on vacation... Or seeking out a little corner in the airport to Daven Mincha out of sight.)

Perhaps you'll argue that this is unavoidable. Afternall, humility is a basic Jewish trait. Of course, this is true, but the humility that Chazal prescribe has a different purpose entirely.

How should we respond to Anti-Semitism or to those who cause us to feel uncomfortable for being observant Jews? Yaakov Avinu provides the blueprint.

The Source of Jewish Pride

Chazal tell us that the encounter in our parsha between Yaakov and Esav is not merely a story from our history.

The Ramban (לב:ד) explains:

ויש בה עוד רמז לדורות כי כל אשר אירע לאבינו עם עשו אחיו יארע לנו תמיד עם בני עשו וראוי לנו לאחז בדרכו של צדיק

In this story is a hint to all future generations; that all that occurred to Yaakov with Esav, will happen to us repeatedly with the children of Esav, and it is worthwhile to hold onto the methods of the Tzadik...

The first thing that is certain is that we, as Bnei Yaakov, Bnei Yisrael, will need to contend with the world of Esav.

We will need to contend with the Anti-Semitism of Esav on Twitter, on Facebook, on TikTok and on SNL. We'll hear about it in the United Nations, and on college campuses. Whether we like it or not, we are surrounded by the world of Esav.

Yaakov Avinu cautions us, when we are confronted with Esav, he will challenge us with the following questions:

כִּי יִפְגָּשְׁךָ עֵשָׂו אָחִי וִשְׁאֵלְךָ לֵאמֹר לְמִי־אַתָּה וְאָנָה תֵלֵךְ וּלְמִי אֵלֶּה לְפָנֶיךָ

'When Esav my brother meets you, and asks you, saying: To whom are you? Where are you going? And whose are these that go before you?

When we encounter Esav he will ask: Who do you belong to? Where do your loyalties lie? Are you committed to a life of Yiddisheit despite the challenges? How easily can you be swayed?

He'll challenge us – Where are you going? What's your end goal? Where do you see yourself in five, twenty or fifty years? What hopes do you have for your children in a hundred or two hundred years? Where are you going?

And what's in front of you? What are your priorities? Who get's to decide what's important to you? Are they based on your values or are they based on your comfort level?

These are the questions that we all inevitably must face. But Yaakov also offers an answer:

וְאָמַרְתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיַעֲקֹב מִנְחָה הִוא שְׁלוּחָה לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו Then you should say: This all belongs to your servant Yaakov; it is a gift sent to my lord, to Esav.

The Seforno explains this response:

Give Esav respect. But do not revere him. Don't put him on a pedestal. Certainly, don't, for even a moment, give Esav the impression that you are afraid of him.

Tell him proudly: I belong to Yaakov. I'm a Jew. Tell him where you're going – you are on a mission in the world, a shlichus, and Yaakov Avinu is the one who sent you. Tell him that the history of the Jewish people, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, are standing behind you.

Jewish Pride is rooted in the knowledge that we are part of something huge. Something far greater than ourselves.

Who Is Asking the Question?

It is interesting to note that the questions that Yaakov suggests that Esav will ask us, are remarkably similar to the questions that Akavya ben Mehallalel (אבות ג:א) says we should ask ourselves to ward off the Yetzer Hara.

Whereas Esav will ask us: לְמִי־אַתָּה וְאָנָה תֵלֵךְ וּלְמִי אֵלֶּה לְפָנֶיךָ (Whose are you? Where are you going and what is before you?), Akavya ben Mehallalel instructs:

הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים וְאִי אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה. דַּע מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן.

Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and a reckoning.

Most peculiarly, Akavya ben Mehallalel gives a totally different answer to Yaakov Avinu. Yaakov tells us to stay strong and proud, Akavya tells us:

From where did you come? From a putrid drop. And to where are you going? To a place of dust, worms, and maggots. And before Whom are you destined to give an account and a reckoning? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

What happened to our self esteem, our Jewish pride? Our courage to stand up against the Esav's of the world?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains: Both answers are correct. It all depends on who is asking the question and who is posing the challenge. When the Yetzer Hara is challenging us, humility is key. When Esav is confronting us, we dare not back down.

Pride on the Outside, Humility on the Inside

The Talmud (ברכות יז א) relates the various tefillos that Tanaim and Amoraim would say at the end of davening:

ר' אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ומי מעכב שאור שבעיסה ושעבוד מלכיות יהי רצון מלפניך שתצילנו מידם ונשוב לעשות חוקי רצונך בלבב שלם.

Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? On the one hand, the yeast in the dough, the evil inclination that is within every person; and the subjugation to the kingdoms on the other. May it be Your will that You will deliver us from their hands, of both the evil inclination and the foreign kingdoms, so that we may return to perform the edicts of Your will with a perfect heart.

The Maharsha explains that these two challenges, the yeast in the dough, our etzer Hara, and the external pressures from the nations of world around us confuse our senses of pride.

We are “puffed up” by our desires, and deflated by anti-semitism. Our tefillah is that this should be rearranged.

This dichotomy is the secret to Jewish Pride and Humility. When the Yetzer Hara is asking the question, we are to explain that we are nothing. Life is fleeting and we will all need to to account for our actions. But when Esav is asking, tell him we're princes of the universe.

Princes of the Universe

Rav Chatzkel Abramsky, zt”l, once needed to testify in a case in which the Beis Din of London was sued by a shochet who had been fired.

As the head of the Beis Din, Rav Abramsky had no choice, but to testify in secular court. His attorney asked him to state his name and his position. The attorney then asked, “Is it true that you are the greatest living halachic authority on the European continent?” Rav Abramsky said, “Yes. That is true.”

At that point the judge interjected and said, “Rabbi Abramsky, is that not rather haughty on your part? I thought that your laws and ethics teach you to be humble.” Without any hesitation, Rav Abramsky responded, “That is correct. Our Torah teaches us to be humble. But your honor, I am under oath.”

Reb Simcha Bunam of Peshishcha famously used to say, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket. In the one pocket, “For my sake was the world created.” And in the other “I am but dust and ashes.”

Yaakov Avinu teaches is that one pocket is worn on the outside, the other on the inside. Hashem should help us to develop a deep sense of Jewish pride, and a profound sense of humility, that each of us should continue the Shlichus of Yaakov Avinu.