After stealing his father’s blessing intended for his elder brother Esau, Jacob is forced to flee his home to escape his brother’s wrath. Along the way, he finds a place to sleep and he has a dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder based on earth that reached to the heavens. When he awakens, he declares, “This is nothing but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” At this point, Jacob was the young idealist, trying to balance life’s challenges with his quest for spirituality.
Toward the end of the parsha, once again Jacob sees angels. But many years have passed and he is both older and wiser. He is now a husband and father of a large family. Jacob is about to meet his brother after all these years and he is understandably afraid. The text states: “And Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him. And Jacob said when he saw them: ‘This is God’s camp.’ And he called the name of that place Mahanaim (camps).”
According to my colleague Rabbi Marc Angel (an interesting name considering the subject matter), this confrontation with the angels was not the idealistic, hopeful experience that Jacob had experienced as a young man. This was not a group of angels who connected heaven and earth. These were angels coming to offer Jacob courage as he was about to meet Esau. Jacob called the place Mahanaim — camps, i.e., a military encampment. This wasn’t a time for idealistic dreams; it was a time to prepare for war.
He quotes Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who commented on the difference between a camp (mahaneh) and a community (edah): “A camp exists as a defensive tactic. Those within the camp are surrounded by enemies; their physical existence is threatened so they come together to protect themselves. A community, by contrast, is united not by fears of external enemies, but by a shared worldview, a shared desire to live happy, good lives. During the course of life, we sometimes feel that we are in an edah; we live among people we trust and like; we strive for similar goals; we try to link heaven and earth by living our earthly lives with a keen sense of the spiritual. Yet there are other times when we feel that we are in a mahaneh; we are threatened, our families are in peril. We unite in order to defend ourselves.”
The question we might ask is, “Does today’s Jewish community more closely resemble a mahaneh (a camp) or an edah (community)?” I submit that tragically, world Jewry is more like the former — a camp that constantly feels threatened and continuously guards itself from attacks. Jews have been attacked by extremists on both the right and the left. There have been mass shootings in synagogues and individual assaults against conspicuously Jewish men and women (mostly Orthodox) by hoodlums. European Jews have not been this vulnerable since World War II. And American Jews are on constant guard against potential murderers, both from the political right and left.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are, tragically, many Jews who have wittingly or unwittingly joined forces with anti-Semites who seek to eradicate the Jewish state and the Jewish people. It boggles my mind that there are Jews who support BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel and who have decried the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and who lament the fact that the U.S. recently recognized that Israel has a right to settle historically Jewish lands in Judea and Samaria. There are, therefore, attacks from within that should cause us all great concern.
Some people delude themselves into thinking that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are unrelated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Earlier this month, the University of Toronto Student Union opposed serving kosher food on campus because keeping kosher is ostensibly “pro-Israel.” Also, recently, students at ASU wearing emblems of anti-Israel organizations and waving signs tried to shut down an event at the Memorial Union during which two injured Israeli soldiers were scheduled to speak. Universities, which are supposed to embrace the free exchange of ideas, have become hotbeds of intolerance and Jew-hatred in the guise of anti-Zionism.
Of course, not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic or even anti-Zionist. Israel, like the United States, is an imperfect country and sometimes needs to be reminded to live up to its highest ideals. But as Jews we would do well to act like an edah (a community) and join forces with those who support the State of Israel, which also happens to be the strongest democracy in the Middle East.
We would do well to heed the words of Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, then when?” It is high time for us to stand up for Jews, to support the only Jewish state (especially when Jews are threatened the world over) and to live proudly as the children of Israel. JN
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky, retired pulpit rabbi and Navy chaplain, is former president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.