Dear TEE community,

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to be part of a conversation on WXXI’s Connections show about addressing the current upsurge in antisemitism. Something all the participants agreed on was the need to build relationships across differences of religion, race, and other divisions in American society. This can be especially difficult when there has been a history of hurt among those involved.

This Shabbat’s Torah portion raises the question of whether reconciliation is possible when there has been a deep rift between individuals. It tells the story of a meeting between Jacob and his brother, Esau. They have not seen each other for many years. When last they were together, Jacob, the younger, tricked their father, Isaac, into giving him the promise of primacy in the family, a blessing meant for Esau as the firstborn. Afterwards, fearing Esau’s anger, Jacob fled for his life. Now, many years later, after both brothers had married, had children, and prospered, they are to meet again. Jacob is clearly afraid and sends his family and livestock ahead of him.

After a mysterious, yet significant interlude where Jacob is renamed Israel (Genesis 32:25-33), the narrative returns to Jacob’s reunion with Esau. Jewish commentary is traditionally very hard on Esau, seeing him as a brutish, ignorant person. But in this story he is the one eager to embrace his brother and re-establish a close relationship. It is Jacob, still unable to trust Esau, who distances himself and declines his brother’s offer of hospitality.

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, it seems a positive resolution to such a fraught relationship. Both brothers are extremely successful by the standards of their society, with large families and material wealth. They are able to come together without animosity or jealousy. Whatever rivalry there was between them has abated.

And yet it seems there is no real reconciliation. One way of looking at this is understanding that a single meeting after years of distance cannot rebuild an authentic relationship. Jacob chooses to part from his brother rather than spend time together. Perhaps, having been deceptive throughout his life, he is no longer able to open himself up to the honesty required for authentic connection. He has neither the willingness nor, it seems, the ability to do the hard work of reconciliation.

In contemporary terms, I see this as what can happen when groups get together for mutual understanding but end up having superficial conversation. It takes time and trust to have the difficult discussions necessary to build honest communication. Politeness is not the same as engagement.

If we wish to address the persistent antisemitism of American culture, we have to be willing to assert our differences from, as well as similarities to others with whom we engage. We should be clear that Jews are not responsible for antisemitism and it must not fall solely on our shoulders to combat it. We must also be willing to hold others accountable for their failure to address antisemitism seriously and examine the ways in which their attitudes and cultures continue to perpetuate it.

With that in mind, I would like to encourage you to participate (and, even more importantly to invite non-Jewish family and friends to participate) in a training next Wednesday night on “Bystander Intervention to Stop Antisemitic Harassment.” It is being run by an organization called Right To Be and sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Here is the registration link with a fuller description of the one hour session. 

Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, the US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Antisemitism, has remarked that antisemitism is the canary in the coal mine, an early warning sign of the breakdown of social and political order. Addressing antisemitism is vital to the wellbeing of all Americans and requires us to take on the task Jacob did not, which to build relationships with others that go beyond the polite formalities and allow true reconciliation.

Rabbi Drorah Setel