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Kiss or Curse?

Kiss or Curse?

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Which is the greater test of faith, affluence or poverty? Is it harder to be a good Jew when you're rich or when you're poor, when you're successful or when you're struggling? No doubt, we would all much rather accept upon ourselves the test of affluence, wouldn't we? But let's not be subjective about it. Let us rather take an objective historical approach.

Back in the early 19th century, Napoleon was conquering Europe and promising liberty and equality for all. When he squared up against Russia, many Jewish leaders sided with him, hoping he would finally bring an end to Czarist persecution and enable Russian Jewry to enjoy full civil rights. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad, thought differently. He actively opposed Napoleon and even had his Chassidim assist in intelligence gathering for the Russian army.

When his colleagues challenged him and questioned his apparent lack of concern for the well-being of his own people, he argued that while Napoleon might be good for the Jews materially, his victory would result in spiritual disaster. History proved him correct. Minus the Little Emperor, Russian Jews remained staunchly Jewish, while French Jewry virtually vanished. How many Jewish Rothschilds are left in the world? G‑d knows we could have used them. Most of French Jewry today hails from North Africa. The originals are few and far between.

There is a fascinating Midrashic interpretation in this week's parshah about the dramatic encounter between Jacob and Esau. The Torah says, "And Esau ran towards him (Jacob) and embraced him… and he kissed him." The Hebrew word for "and he kissed him" is vayishakayhu. In the Torah, this word is written with a line of dots above it. Says the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni: these dots are there to indicate that the word should be read it differently; not vayishakayhu, he kissed him, but rather vayishachayhu, he bit him!

How can we understand a Midrash which seems to change the entire meaning of the word? A kiss is an expression of love and a bite is the opposite! Says the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, 1847-1905, the second Rebbe in the Chassidic dynasty of Ger), "When Esau kisses, Jacob is bitten!"

The American experience confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that freedom, democracy and equal rights, while a wonderful blessing for Jews for which we should be eternally grateful, also present a profound challenge to our Jewish identity and way of life. In the melting pot of the United States, Jews have integrated so successfully that they are virtually disappearing! Success and affluence are wonderful gifts of opportunity, but we don't seem to be passing the test of faith with flying colors.

The French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, argued that anti-Semitism has been good for the Jews. It has kept Jews Jewish! While no one wants to be oppressed, and we reject anti-Semititsm categorically, the man does have a point. When antisemitism bites, we intuitively know how to respond. But when the world is in a kissing mood, we don't quite know how to handle it.

I remember as a young rabbi working with university students in Johannesburg in the late 1970's. At that time, they were completely apathetic to Judaism. My colleagues and I were struggling to elicit any meaningful response to Jewish programs on campus. During one particular meeting, we seriously contemplated getting up in the dead of night to spray-paint some swastikas on the Student Union building. Surely, that would get some reaction! Of course, we never did it. But the fact that the thought actually crossed our minds demonstrates how external threats have a way of making Jews bristle with pride and righteous indignation.

May we never again face the test of poverty or persecution. Please G‑d, we will be proud and knowledgeable Jews successfully meeting the spiritual challenges of the good life.

Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn, New York. In 1976 he was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul since 1986, president of the South African Rabbinical Association, and a frequent contributor to Chabad.org. His book From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading was recently published by Ktav, and is available at Jewish bookshops or online.
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Catherine NY, NY November 15, 2010

democacry negative? I certainly didn't see that democracy is a negative thing in this article. What I saw was what can happen to any human being who forgets to keep G-d in his vision thoughts and prayers every day. That is, if we lose G-d as our navigator we will ultimately be lost. Reply

manugw Buenos Aires, Argentina December 5, 2009

On antisemitism as a strong motivation After being harassed by my ignorant boss for being Jewish with dirty jokes and some harsh words almost 10 years ago I fought him and took myself to study Torah and learn Jewish culture in depth. Now he respect me a lot for my Jewish condition and does not dare to say a word fearing a strong rebuke Reply

Sau lLever DBN, JHB December 15, 2005

Soul Vs Democracy The threat of unlimited freedom that comes at times with Democracy needs to be monitored. The theme created by this article articulates the Islamic belief that Demoracy is a negative thing. We are all born with free will as far as I understand therefore our environments can effect our ability temporarily but our soul will always follow what it's destined to follow. Reply

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