“The Ancient Origins and Practice of Anti-Semitism”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we read that Yitzchak follows in the footsteps of his father Avraham and goes down to Gerar. As it says in the Torah (Genesis 26:6), “Va’yay’shev Yitzchak b’Gror,” and Yitzchak dwells in Gerar. Like Avraham, Yitzchak once again tells the local people that Rivkah is his sister rather than his wife. King Avimelech of Gerar abducts Rivkah, and the entire royal household is smitten with a terrible disease. Because of the plague, Avimelech realizes his error, and Rivkah is returned to Yitzchak. Yitzchak and his family are allowed to live in the land of Gerar, as opposed to the Egyptians who expelled Avraham because they really could not assure Avraham’s security.

Scripture tells us that Yitzchak was enormously successful in Gerar (Genesis 26:13): “Va’yigdal ha’eesh, va’yay’lech ha’loch v’gadayl, ad kee gadal meh’od,” The man [Yitzchak] became great and kept becoming greater until he was very great. The Midrash tells us that the term “great” is repeated in this verse three times because Yitzchak became great not only in wealth, but also in fame and in good deeds as well. In fact, says the Midrash, the local people would say: “Better the manure of Yitzchak’s animals, than the money in the coffers of Avimelech, king of Gerar.” Literally, anything that Yitzchak touched turned to gold. The Torah tells us, in Genesis 26:14, that Yitzchak acquired flocks and herds and owned many enterprises. The unfortunate result was: “Va’y’kan’ooh o’toh Ph’lish’tim,” the Philistines envied Yitzchak, resulting in the earliest acts of recorded anti-Semitism. Genesis 26:15 tells us that all the wells, which Avraham’s servants had dug in the days of Avraham, the Philistines stopped up and filled with earth.

It is very likely that the wells that Avraham dug were common wells, open to the general public. Nevertheless, the Philistines, who desperately needed water in this arid land, filled them up so that they could not be used, just to make certain that Yitzchak and his family could not use them. We find this pattern of anti-Semitic behavior in Pharaoh as well. Pharaoh commands (Exodus 1:22), “Any male child that is born shall be cast into the river,” implying that even newborn Egyptian children should be thrown into the river because some Jewish child might be disguised as an Egyptian child in order to escape the decree. Let’s make sure we get every last one of them!

Similarly, Hitler desperately needed trains to transport troops to the front, but diverted them to the killing camps even at the last desperate stages of the war, though it most likely meant losing the war.

The Philistines were determined to injure Yitzchak’s flocks by making sure that they had no water. The Siftei Chachamim notes that the wells were covered up because the local people were sure that Yitzchak would sense their enmity and leave Gerar. When King Avimelech saw that Yitzchak was staying put, he finally said to him clearly: (Genesis 26:16) “Lech may’eemanu, kee atzam’ta mee’menu me’od,” Leave us! You are expelled, because you have become much too great for us. The words “kee atzam’ta mee’menu,” you have become too great for us, also implies that it is because of us, at our expense, that you have become great.

Yitzchak departs and settles in a new place, Nachal Gerar, and is once again confronted with Philistine attacks on his new wells until he moves even further away, to Rechovot, where he is finally able to settle and live in peace.

Some time elapses, and before long, Avimelech, the king of Gerar, together with Achuzat, his friend, and Phicol, the general of his legion, go to fetch Yitzchak (perhaps implying that if Yitzchak makes peace, okay, but if he rejects Avimelech’s overtures, then they will confront Yitzchak physically). Yitzchak is perplexed. He asks (Genesis 26:28-29), “Why have you come to me? You hate me and drove me away from you.” Avimelech answers, “We have indeed seen that G-d is with you, and we said, ‘Let the oath between ourselves now be between us and you, and let us make a covenant with you…Now you, O’ Blessed of G-d.'”

It’s interesting how the anti-Semites who want to destroy, weaken and impoverish the Jewish people don’t always succeed. In fact, quite to the contrary, it is often the Jew who succeeds unexpectedly in the face of adversity. Avimelech had already seen this when Yitzchak was in Gerar. The Torah reports in Genesis 26:20: “Va’yizrah Yitzchak ba’aretz ha’hee, va’yim’tza ba’shana ha’hee me’ah shearim, vayivarchay’hu Hashem,” and Yitzchak planted in that land. In that year, the year of the famine, Yitzchak reaped one hundred fold. It was clear that G-d had blessed him. And now, Yitzchak is living even further away, deeper in the wilderness, and yet, wherever he goes he digs wells and finds water.

We have seen in contemporary times, and throughout Jewish history, that the Jews have endured many expulsions. While our people have suffered greatly during those expulsions, the countries that expel them have often suffered equally. In fact, throughout Jewish history, the nations that expel the Jews seem to go into an almost immediate nose-dive and economic decline: England(1290), France (1306), Hungary (1349), Austria (1421), Spain (1492), Portugal (1496)…

The only major exception to this unwritten rule is contemporary Germany, which would have suffered a similar decline had not the Allied forces and the Marshall Plan rebuilt Germany. But how ironic is it, that today Germany is taking unprecedented steps to recruit Jewish immigrants, especially Jews from the former Soviet Union who have any previous connection to Germany, to settle in the former East Germany, which is economically weak, in the hope that the Jews’ economic prowess help revive the economy.

Let’s face it, there is no escaping Jewish destiny; there is no escaping Jewish history.

May you be blessed.