To Love the Other, We Must Love Ourselves

Vayishlah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 27, 1999 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

After many years abroad, Jacob returned safely to the land promised by God to his Mesopotamian clan. He chose to settle, once reconciled with Esau, his estranged brother, in the town of Shechem, where years before his grandfather, Abraham, had tarried coming from Haran (Genesis 12:6-7). Abraham had even built an altar there as testimony of God’s appearance to him to reiterate the assurance that the land was his.

There is no doubt that Jacob came to stay. Burdened with many possessions, he purchased a parcel of land from the sons of Hamor (that is Shechem, thus creating a relationship between the two clans) and erected an altar. In short, Jacob did everything to turn the town into his home (Genesis 33:18-20).

The midrash understands these introductory verses to the story of the rape of Dinah by Shechem in the same spirit and detects in them a paradigm for how a Jew is to act in a world of gentiles. It sees in the phrase “and he encamped before the city (33:18)” more than a brief stay for purely personal gain. Because the force of the verb “va-yihan – and he encamped” includes the possibility of settling down, the midrash suggests that Jacob came to give as well as take. His relationship was not merely exploitative. According to one opinion he helped the town develop its own currency. According to another, it was a bazaar for the sale of inexpensive merchandise while a third opined that he opened a chain of bathhouses. Common to all three opinions was the idea that Jacob had an obligation to repay the polity that granted him secure residence with productive labor (B.T. Shabbat 33a). In an age that knew nothing of human rights, tolerance had to be mutually beneficial. If Jews as a small minority became utterly dependent, they would soon wear out their welcome.

The midrash is a subtle reformulation of the counsel which the prophet Jeremiah had conveyed to the first wave of Judean exiles transferred by the conquering Babylonians from Jerusalem to disparate parts of their empire just prior to the final destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E. Their fate would not be that of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom dispersed in 722 by the Assyrians. God would restore inhabitants of Judea (the Southern Kingdom) in but seventy years. In the meantime, however, they must become loyal and productive subjects of the realm in which they now find themselves. “Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper (Jeremiah 29:4-7).”

This robust, pro-active attitude betrayed no sense of despair. Exile was only a phase of Jewish history, not its end. Without ever ceasing to yearn for restoration to their ancestral land, Jews adjusted to the risks of homelessness. They forged well-organized religious enclaves, sought to fill the economic interstices of their new locales and prayed for the welfare of their hosts. Every Shabbat in their synagogues after the reading of the Torah, medieval Jews intoned a Hebrew prayer that began, “He who grants victory to kings and dominion to princes, but whose own reign is eternal … may He bless, preserve, guard, help, exalt, enhance and uplift our ruler [name to be filled in]…” And in that same spot in our own services, we still continue the practice, albeit with a prayer suitable to our unprecedented circumstances of freedom and equality.

When in Berlin recently, I visited again the partially restored New Synagogue on Oranienburger Street dedicated in 1866 in the presence of Bismarck and other Prussian dignitaries. At the time, with its 1800 seats for men on the ground floor and 1200 for women in the balcony, it was Germany’s largest synagogue. Its distinctively Moorish architecture, topped by an immense gilded dome toward the front of the building and flanked by two smaller ones, confidently announced to the world that this was a synagogue that belonged and would last. Emancipation had ended the infernal precariousness of the Middle Ages. This grand structure aspired to be one of the landmarks of a burgeoning city come of age. By 1910 Jews would constitute 4.3% of Berlin’s residents, though less than 1% of the country as a whole.

The synagogue stood on a narrow but deep lot, attached to buildings on each side. The Nazis dared not set it afire in the pogrom on Kristallnacht. During the war the sanctuary fell victim to Allied bombing. Today, all that has been restored is the front third of the original building, whose ground floor serves as a museum for the history of the synagogue. As you reach the rear of the museum you come to a glass partition through which you can see the cleared space that once was the sanctuary that reverberated to the music and choir of Louis Lewandowski, who so masterfully garbed Jewish motifs in German music. The vastness of its emptiness conjures up the presence that has vanished.

Emancipation in Germany did not fail for want of Jewish effort. No Jewish community in the long history of the Diaspora ever tried harder to act in the spirit of the ancient midrash on Jacob in Shechem. Lifting the ghetto in the German states during the nineteenth century let loose a torrent of creative energy that quickly brought Jews to the forefront of many a field of endeavor. An affinity for education nurtured by Judaism paved the way to their astounding upward mobility. By 1886-87, Jews represented nearly 10% of the students studying at Prussian universities prompting the tart quip that “‘Doctor’ is a Jewish forename.” A new exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York (under Seminary auspices) on Berlin and its Jews during the reign of Kaiser William II (1890-1918) unfurls brilliantly the seminal role of Jewish artists, authors and gallery owners in bringing modernism to a city still dominated by a highly conservative elite. By the time of the Weimar Republic the outsiders had finally become, if ever so briefly, insiders.

But gratitude and achievement were soon to be replaced by resentment and worse. Only a self-confident country can play host to a talented and dynamic minority. To love the other we must first love ourselves.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yishlah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.