At the March of the Living ceremony earlier this month Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, child survivor and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, addressed the participants, raising the question that troubles so many of us: Will the next generation still remember?
So many of us are haunted by this question. The survivors among us today are all child survivors, and a time will come when that generation will no longer be among us. Organizations, museums and outreach centers are working hard to preserve the memories through survivor testimonies, through educational programs and through publicity in the form of human rights issues. But will this be enough? Polls show significant proportions of the American public are unfamiliar with the Holocaust, although this is still a minority. What will the polls show 20 years from now?
Rabbi Lau assures us that we, at least, will not forget. Jews will continue to remember. Not because of our dedication to this cause, but because the world will not allow us to forget.
Anti-Antisemitism waxes and wanes, but it is ever-present. The Talmud states that the way of the world is for Esau to hate Jacob, and that has unfortunately been proven an accurate prediction throughout our tumultuous history. The Torah rarely presents judgments of character, but it does offer narratives that shed some light on Biblical characters. We can speculate a great deal about Jacob’s character based on the stories the Torah shares with us, but one particular narrative is very telling. When Isaac instructed Esau to hunt some game to inspire his blessing Jacob was pressured by his mother to “intercept” this blessing, bringing meat and bread his mother had prepared. Jacob impersonated Esau, but his voice caused Isaac to hesitate. Isaac, who had lost his eyesight, relied on his senses of hearing, touch and smell. Upon feeling Jacob’s arms and neck, which were wrapped in goatskins, Isaac exclaimed: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 27:22)
Rash”i and other commentators understand that the verse is not referring to the sound of Jacob’s voice, but to the way he spoke. The mannerisms of speech drew Isaac to declare that the words are Jacob’s words. Esau normally spoke harshly, while Jacob used ‘please and thank you.’ Esau’s words displayed impatience and entitlement, while Jacob’s words were softer and compassionate, invoking God’s participation in events.
The Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 65:20) derives another lesson from these words, teaching us not about Jacob’s identity but his strength and his tools for success. “The hands are the hands of Esau:” tells us that the strength of Esau is in his hands, in his physical pursuits. Esau will always try to dominate through hard power. Jacob’s strength, on the other hand, is in his voice. As long as Jacob employs his voice he is safe from the hands of Esau. Jacob can overcome the dominance of Esau by using his voice, the voice of prayer in the synagogue and the voice of study in the academies of Torah.
Our words, their content, their intent and their effect, control a major part of our destiny. Our Torah reading (in the Diaspora) focuses on consequences of ill-chosen words, words that hurt and cause harm. Our sages identify lashon hara as the cause of the afflictions discussed Tazria and Metzora. The haughtiness, arrogance and self-righteousness reflected in those who disparage others is the root of much of the evil staining our society.
We are blessed with many opportunities to improve our uses of speech, and foster feelings of appreciation and respect of others rather than focus on faults and imperfections. We need to seize the power of the “Voice of Jacob” and express through it compassion and loving-kindness. We have work to do in that regard, but we must also recognize other facets of Jacob’s voice at which we do excel. This week we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish state which, despite its many challenges and imperfections, stands out as the single biggest sponsor of Torah study the world has ever seen. Israel stands for many things, not least of which is a state which provides refuge and a home for Jews everywhere, a state in which we all have a stake, whether or not we are formal citizens of the state. As a result of being a home for Jews of all stripes and colors the government of Israel supports all manner of study institutions, including the study of Torah and the dissemination of Torah values. We owe a massive debt of gratitude to Israel’s Defence Forces, whom we bless each week in our services, but also to each and every one of Israel’s millions of citizens who make the daily sacrifices to live in the land and contribute to the strengthening of Jacob’s Voice.
The world may choose to constantly remind us of our differences, poking and prodding so we can never forget what has happened in the past and what can happen in the future. But we also need to recognize where our true strength lies. It is necessary for us to utilize Esau’s powers, the strength of the hands, but we must remember that our true strength, and the real force behind Israel’s success, is in the Voice of Jacob.
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