The Torah relates that during Rebecca’s pregnancy she felt a great deal of inner turmoil. The Midrash portrays her confusion from being pulled in different directions, leading her to question the nature and personality of her child. She sought divine counsel and she was told that she was carrying twins. “And the Lord said to her, two peoples are in your belly and two nationalities from your womb will diverge. And one nationality will contend with the other and the greater will serve the lesser.” (Genesis 25:23)
Already before they were born Esau and Jacob were antagonistic to each other. Jacob’s name was given to him because he emerged from the womb clinging to the heel of his brother, as if he had struggled to come out first. Much later, when Jacob met Esau upon his return from his flight to Laban’s home, the brothers embraced and kissed. Every Torah scroll is written with dots above these words, and the Midrash notes that Esau’s embrace was more sinister, as he attempted at that time to kill his brother. Rashi there cites the Midrash which relays a jarring statement from the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. “It is halacha (the way) that Esau hates Jacob.” While the term “halacha” is usually used to reference a legal ruling, here the word must be defined literally – the way. Commentaries explain that the word “halacha” is used here because there is no logical explanation for the hatred of the heirs of Esau toward the heirs of Jacob, and we need to accept it just we accept a halachic ruling the reason for which we don’t know. This doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism is always present, or that it must be present. Where it exists, however, there is often no rational explanation.
We can gain some insight into the nature of our Diaspora relationships with other nations from Isaac as well. Abraham was told that his descendants will be strangers in a land that is not their own, and they will be enslaved to a foreign nation for 400 years. Our tradition calculates that this prophecy began its fulfilment immediately upon the birth of Isaac. Exactly 400 years pass from the birth of Isaac to Israel’s delivery from slavery in ancient Egypt. If we include Isaac’s lifetime in the numbers we must also see Isaac’s lifetime as years of exile. In fact we find the beginnings of a pattern in Isaac’s life which repeats itself throughout our history. Isaac went to live in the city of Gerar, a Philistine region. His farming enterprises were extremely successful, reaching “one hundred markets.” (Gen 26:12) The subsequent verses relate Isaac’s increasing wealth, and conclude with the phrase: “and the Philistines became jealous of him.” (v. 14) The locals expressed their resentment of Isaac’s success first by sealing with earth all the wells that his father Abraham had dug. Although the local population benefited from these wells and they were shooting themselves in the foot by sealing them, they nevertheless acted irrationally in their quest to scorn and divest themselves from the contributions Abraham had made.
Next came expulsion. Avimelech king of the Philistines bid Isaac to leave. “And Avimelech said to Isaac: Go away from us, for you have become much too prosperous for us.” (v. 16)
The reason for expulsion is usually veiled, sometimes peddled as a virtuous pursuit of religious purity. But here the Torah tells it straight, informing us the real reason behind the expulsion: follow the money. Not much later Avimelech, having realized the price his society was paying for having banished Isaac, visited Isaac along with his delegation to seek an alliance with him. “And they said: We have seen repeatedly that God was with you, and we said let there be an oath among us, between us and you, and let us make a covenant with you.” (v.28)
In our national history Jews have been banished time and again, expelled from the very countries in which Jews have helped to build economic prosperity. There are many examples, but we will suffice with one, which has strong parallels to Isaac’s paradigm. In the 11th century Jews began settling in England, where they were limited from engaging in many of the common trades. With few other options for earning their livelihood Jews often served as moneylenders, providing a crucial service of loaning capital for business and trade to those who could not obtain it from fellow Christians because of the strict usury laws imposed by the Catholic Church. The Crown taxed these Jews heavily, and as a result the coffers of the nation grew comfortably. In 1275 King Edward I passed a law restricting Jews from usury, which effectively barred them from banking. They had long been excluded from owning farmland or belonging to guilds. The wells dug by the Jews of previous generations, and which had provided capital/benefits/water to their host society were now sealed – water could no longer be drawn from the well, which harmed the Jewish population but was also to the detriment of English society.
The Jews became poor and were no longer a source of income to the Crown. By the end of the 13th century, just 15 years after this edict was passed, the Jews were banished entirely from the Kingdom, and were invited back only in 1656 through Oliver Cromwell. Around the same time that Jews were banished from England they were also expelled from France. Historians attribute both expulsions to vast debts owed by the nobility to Jewish lenders. A simple solution to wipe the debt was to get rid of the creditors. Numerous reasons are attributed to Cromwell’s 17th century interest in the Jews, spurring his advocacy on their behalf and his subsequent invitation for their immigration. Cromwell certainly used religious arguments – cleverly reversing the opposition of Christian leaders – but we cannot dismiss the economic interests he had in luring the trade businesses of prosperous Dutch Jews.
Nearly every nation that allowed Jews to live and pursue a livelihood in their territory throughout our diaspora history saw economic benefits as a result. After expelling the Jews many of these nations’ prosperity declined, and history shows that numerous leaders recognized this pattern and invited Jews to live in their countries.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that our relationships with nations of the world vary. Abraham’s relationship was of respect and admiration. The Hittites were eager to do business with him, calling him “a prince of God in our midst.” (23:6) Abraham was able to live among the nations without eliciting envy or jealousy. Isaac’s relationship was defined by jealousy and resentment, and Jacob’s relationship was further degraded to active exile and servitude. With each of our forefathers God established a covenant. In Leviticus the verse expresses this by highlighting the word “covenant” with the mention of each of these ancestors. “And I shall remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac and also My covenant with Abraham I shall remember, and the land I shall remember.” (Leviticus 26:42)
In each test of exile, no matter the disposition in which our ancestors found themselves, they succeeded in upholding their commitment to God. At times in our exile we have been Jacob, wandering from place to place pursued by constant deprivation and suffering from persecution and direct hatred. At other times we have been Isaac, being the target of envy and resentment from those around us, and at other times we are a “prince of God” like Abraham, living in exile but commanding respect from other nations and achieving a level of prestige. Each circumstance has a precedence in our forefathers, and in each type we are bound to follow their lead and retain the bond of commitment to the heritage they have bequeathed to us.
Esau may often bear hatred for Jacob, and that is an unfortunate element of our diasporic existence, but it is also part of who we are and it defines our challenges. Many nations who were not the object of racial and ethnic derision have disappeared from civilization while we are still here after 4000 years. It is ironically when hatred is at its lowest that we tend to lose sense of who we are, teaching us that Abraham’s circumstance was especially challenging. For better or for worse, when hostilities are revived our memory and Jewish identity is often revived at the same time. Jacob’s exile might be the most difficult physically, and it exacts the highest casualties, but the spiritual identity of his descendants is less threatened at such times. For some of our history we have been somewhere in between, and if we succeed in achieving a degree of prosperity this invokes jealousy and resentment, the challenge with which Isaac lived.