Vayeshev 2018: Another Swastika

Again. I can’t believe it. Another swastika. This time on the office of a Jewish professor’s office at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, in a neighborhood where i spent 9 wonderful years. A professor that teaches about the Holocaust.

Again. A swastika. I had hoped that last year’s swastika on our doors here at SPS was an anomaly…but i soon came to learn that since the beginning of 2017 there has been a major spike in anti-semitic acts across this country. While nothing as horrific as what happened in PIttsburgh just over a month ago, yet another swastika, here in NYC is very unsettling. And there have been numerous hate crimes over the last month of course as well.

This begs us to ask the questions, as American Jews, are we not quite as comfortable as we thought?

That brings me to this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeshev.

Vayeshev. And he settled. Jacob, after over 20 year on the run, marrying 4 times, having 13 children, and now having reconciled w/his brother, is back at home, in a land where he should be comfortable.

But the text comes to teach us something fascinating-that when we think we are settled, we need to examine what this means.

Does this mean we are settling or we are feeling settled-two very different connotations.

Let’s look at the text. At the beginning of our parasha, we read,

Genesis 37:1

“And Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan.”

So there is an Initial question: Who could blame him? What were his expectations?

Rashi, the medieval commentator of France said that:

Jacob wanted to dwell in tranquility (some even say disengage) but the anguish of Joseph fell upon him.

So what does “in tranquility” mean? Does the mean he wanted to ignore things around him? That if Jacob closed his eyes he wouldn’t see the angst between his sons? He wouldn’t notice the famine that would eventually come to his land? Was he so settled that he wasn’t able to make things okay for his family?

Aviva Zornberg in Genesis: The Beginning of Desire:

Jacobs’s “settling” becomes not a fact, but an attitude, a mode in which he seeks to appropriate his life. In the most obvious sense, he would like to ‘settle down” in the Holy Land, after his years in exile and danger. He would like to read the narrative of his own life as entering a period of fulfillment, of closure, after the difficult conflicts and confrontations of his youth.

This of course makes sense. Wouldn’t we all want this?

But unfortunately, this is not to be:

Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 106a

Any time that the word “vayeshev” is used, it is only to indicate crisis. As it says “And Israel settled in Shittim, and the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women.” And it is written here (in our parasha), “And Jacob settled in the land where his father sojourned, the land of Canaan, and later it will say that Joseph brought bad reports of them (his brothers) to their father.’

Settling isn’t ok.

But here is the question. Does that mean that Jacob was supposed to be on edge all of the time? Always looking at the glass half empty rather than half full? Couldn’t he have a little peace in his life?

For me, i am brought back to where we are as an American Jewish community, and of course, there are many directions to go w/that statement. We could look at numbers, we could look at affiliation. But I don’t choose to focus on that, as I choose to focus on meaning-though proudly we are doing ok here at SPS.

What we do need to focus on, which admittedly, for the first 40 years of my life, I didn’t think we needed to in NYC for sure, is how settled are we as a Jewish community. Is this in fact, our home? When we learn about the swastikas, how do we balance the desire to feel settled, at home in our home, and yet the need to be vigilant that we are still considered the other, for so many?

In this week’s NY Times Op Ed page, Bari Weiss wrote another excellent Op-Ed.  She started by talking about Jewish life in Europe, where she reminded us of three strains of Anti-Semitism. She reminded us that many Jews in Europe are living their life in the closet as Jews.

And yet, people, families, Jews-still live there, still go there. Are they-are we crazy? But are we going to stop living our lives? Or if that happens, have the anti-semites won already…

But as Anti-Semitism crosses the shores, we need to understand what we are dealing with, and sadly, it is multi directional, which means, we need to be in relationship with so many different groups so that we have allies.

Weiss writes that:

But the story of European anti-Semitism isn’t simply a case of the resurgence of the neo-fascist right-though that is one piece of it.

Another number of physically violent acts committed against Jews in Europe are perpetrated by those who have radicalized Islam.

Now add a third ingredient to this toxic brew: the fashionable anti-Semitism of the far left that masquerades as anti-Zionism and anti-racism.

The Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi put it elegantly: “What anti-Semitism does is turn the Jews — the Jew — into the symbol of whatever a given civilization defines as its most loathsome qualities.” When you look through this dark lens, you can understand how, under Communism, the Jews were the capitalists. How under Nazism, the Jews were the race contaminators. And how for Mr. Corbyn and his ilk on the left, Israel, the Jew among the nations, is the last bastion of white, racist colonialism.

….Now these three strains of hate are beginning to show up on this side of the Atlantic.

In each of these cases, SYMBOLS ARE IMPORTANT-an arm raise high in the air. A swastika on the door. A symbol of othering.

As Rabbi Avi Friedman wrote-

When I see a red octagon, I stop.  The meaning of that symbol has been ingrained in me for as long as I can remember.  It does not have to have the word “stop” written on it. The symbol is enough to elicit a response.  It is one of many symbols that have that kind of power over me.

Another symbol which immediately elicits a response in me is the swastika – the emblem of Nazi Germany.  Without saying a word, the presence of a swastika tells me that I am “other,” that I am hated and that I am in danger. ..

Anti-Semitism is on the rise.  The ADL reported a nearly 60% increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the year 2017 from the previous year.  In a divided country, the one thing that the left and the right seem to agree on is anti-Semitism.  Hatred of Jews takes many forms and is being perpetrated by extremists on both ends of the political spectrum.

So that brings me to us, today, as Jews, here in America. How do we feel? Settled on edge? Who are we? As Rabbi Friedman writes….This Sunday evening, Jews around the world will put another symbol up in their windows – the Menorah or Hanukkiyah.  It is the symbol of the Jewish people’s struggle 2,200 years ago to be religiously different without persecution. Unfortunately, it’s a battle we’re still fighting.


As friend of mine, who has kids my kids age, wrote the following-Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

One of the laws of Hanukkah is pirsum hanisa, publicizing that miracle. At times of safety, we are obligated to put candles in the window to show our pride in our small, minority people and our traditions. In times of persecution, we can move our candles inside. I’m challenged to understand which kind of place we live in in America in 2018, but I am so grateful that here in my small enclave in Brooklyn, my child can stand here with pride on his way to school.

I have to say, even with the horror, even with the symbols, I choose to be strong. I choose to publicize the miracle. The miracle of life. The miracle of freedom. The miracle of relationships. The fact that just yesterday, the German consul general sat in my office to see how they and we can work together.

Does this mean we should be complacent or ignore the hate that is being allowed to flourish?

Last week I held one of my bnai mitzvah family meeting…i explained where i wear my kippah….a symbol of God. A symbol that I am Jewish.

I will continue to wear it. Certainly here in NYC. I won’t settle-if i see something, i will say something,  but i won’t be afraid.

Tomorrow night, when we light the first candle, may we bring light where there is darkness, hope where there is fear, love where there is hate, and may all of us who have felt othered, and at times, settled, get up, walk around, understand the landscape, and work as hard as possible, to make everyone feel at home.

Shabbat shalom.