The patriarch Jacob, of whom we have read in the Torah the past few weeks, is the most maligned of our forefathers. With his seeming deception of his blind father to gain the firstborn blessing from Esau and his commercial manipulations of his father-in-law Laban, anti-Semites see him as the prototype of the wily, cunning, dishonest Jew who will do anything for profit.
Jacob is the forerunner of Shylock, who mourns more for his lost ducats than his lost daughter. In modern times, the State of Israel, named for him as well, is accused of engaging in questionable moral tactics and losing its soul to fight off its enemies.
Truth regardless of consequencesAnd yet, we Jews celebrate Jacob. We call ourselves the children of Israel, the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with, and defeated, an angel. Why celebrate a man of seeming deceit?
We do this because Jacob was the patriarch who entered the arena with evil. He fought it and defeated it, unconcerned about the damage it might do to his reputation. He knew Esau was a violent, dangerous man who would have abused the power that would have come with the firstborn’s blessing. He was determined to stop him one way or another, even if it partially impugned his soul.
The same was true of his encounter with Lavan, whose wealth would have been abused and misused (and was in any event owed to Jacob for years of unpaid labor).
Some believe that religion should distance itself from the corruption of the world and maintain an unblemished integrity. Monastic life, divorced from the affairs of a society ruled by greed and avarice, is where the pious flourish.
Even in the Jewish world there are many who believe that the righteous man spends his life studying, unsullied by materialism or commerce. Likewise, the argument goes, observant Jews should remain permanently in a yeshivah and avoid service in the Israeli army because fighting evil taints the fighter and lacks the innocence of pure Torah study. In any event, the army is not sufficiently religious and ritual commitment will suffer in its godless environment.
But this attitude flies in the face of the lessons we learn from Jacob. His vision of religion celebrates the rebellious man of faith, not the subservient man of the spirit.
Historically, those who have been prepared to fight evil even when accused of becoming unethical in the process have been vindicated by saving civilization from monstrous injustice. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War and insisted on continuing the bloody campaign when much of the nation was crying out for peace. Today, we remember him as our greatest president, who purged America of the abomination of slavery, and kept the Union intact.
Seventy-five years later, Britain’s Neville Chamberlain proclaimed “peace in our time” and portrayed himself as an ethical man unwilling to shed blood, in contrast to the “warmonger” Winston Churchill, who was prepared to shed “blood, sweat and tears” to fight Hitler. Today, Churchill is remembered as the 20th century’s greatest statesman.
At Oxford, I heard some world-renowned Jewish academics lamenting Israel’s existence. Prior to its creation, they maintained, the Jews had the respect of the world as the people of the book and the pity of humanity as Hitler’s victims. Now, we were the people of the M-16 and seen as oppressors of the Palestinians.
These moral cowards would have Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran take over the Middle East in order for the Jews to maintain a false morality, predicated on ethical self-preservation, while the world is overtaken by darkness. The desire to remain aloof from the world’s affairs and allow wicked men to gain supremacy is the piety of cowards and betrays a fraudulent faith.
For thousands of years, religion has been perceived as demanding and inculcating obedience. Faith demands bowing the head to the unassailable will of God. Religious people have been dismissed as being void of personality and purged of charisma. In Israel, many of the secular have come to refer to the Orthodox as ‘dosim,’ connoting a vanilla man made of straw and weak fiber. The man of faith wears a hair shirt, flagellates the body, and engages in somber reflection. But rejecting all such weak stereotypes, Judaism imparted to the world a revolutionary vision of global social transformation and change, a time when men and women, through their defiance, would cure the world of seemingly intractable ills. War itself would be defeated, as would disease and hunger. Human suffering, Judaism taught, was not the fault of sinful man. Rather, the man of faith was he who demanded of God Himself to keep his promises and His injunctions to choose life.
And thus was born the homo religious Israelus, the defiant man of faith who wrestles with God and prevails.
The rebellious man of faith will continue to worship God after Auschwitz, but He will never excuse God’s seeming callousness in allowing a holocaust against innocents. To the contrary, as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, shouted in public on countless occasions, defiantly, and with fists pounding the table: “Ad Mosai (how long)?”
How long, oh Lord, will you remain silent as your people suffer and die? How long will it be before You fulfill Your promise to perfect the world, defeat death, and bring peace and dignity to Your people who have grieved so long and so much?
Schneerson challenged God, saying the flaws of the world are now His responsibility. We have been a faithful nation for generations. No longer can the alleged sinfulness of the Jewish people be used as a scapegoat for the failure for God’s promise of life to materialize. Our suffering is due not to our sins, or our shortcomings. It is now fully God’s responsibility to honor His promise of redemption.
The faithful have been obedient long enough. It is time for the emergence of the new defiant man of faith, steeped in the tradition of Jacob, refusing to allow the iron hoofs of evil to tread upon the vulnerable flesh of the innocent and the soft and trusting heart of the righteous.