I just returned home to Johannesburg following a series of family trips to Cape Town, the United States and Uruguay; as well as a speaking tour across the West Coast of the United States.
I have a long list of lecture titles in my repertoire; but understandably, at this time the most requested topic was my talk on antisemitism. It is called “Why the Jews? Is There a Reason for Antisemitism?” Clearly, the Israel-Hamas war and its repercussions around the world, including in top academic institutions, revealed a global undercurrent of antisemitism that left most Jews surprised and shaken. No wonder it is today’s hottest topic.
As always, we find a relevant message in this week’s Torah portion Shemot, which begins the book of Exodus. It introduces us to Moses. We will follow him from his birth in Egypt to his escape to Midyan, the Burning Bush and God’s call to him to confront Pharaoh and redeem the Jewish people. Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, is now the main protagonist of the biblical narrative until he passes at age 120 at the very end of Deuteronomy.
Having been saved from a basket in the Nile and adopted by the princess of Egypt herself, Moses grew up in Pharoah’s palace. As a young prince, he ventured out to observe the plight of his enslaved people. In his first act of leadership, he came to the defense of a fellow Israelite who was being mercilessly beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster and Moses struck the Egyptian dead.
The very next day, he witnessed two Jews fighting. “Why would you strike your friend?” asked Moses of the one who was about to hit the other. They, in turn, threatened to report him to the Egyptian authorities for killing the Egyptian taskmaster. These two Jews were Datan and Aviram, who would continue to be a thorn in Moses’s side until their tragic demise during the Korach episode.
It seems that these two early encounters would be a harbinger of all of Jewish history to follow—until and including today.
The Jewish people have faced oppression from without and erosion from within. According to various commentaries, when Moses saw the two Jews fighting with each other, he wondered whether this might be the reason his people were being afflicted with Egyptian bondage.
Antisemitism is indeed dangerous. Very dangerous. It kills. Young and old, men, women and children were massacred on Oct. 7. Now we continue to lose our brave young soldiers: 174 holy martyrs as of this writing.
The Gaza campaign may be taking longer than we thought it would, but at least we know who the enemy is and more or less where they are hiding. The IDF will deal with them and may God grant them a speedy success.
But more difficult and complicated is the discord among our own.
Thank God, we witnessed the most inspirational unity in Israel and worldwide after Oct. 7. But sadly, the cracks are starting to show again. Whether it is Israel’s Supreme Court weighing in on the contentious judicial reform issue, which has polarized Israeli society, or some Diaspora Jews demonstrating on the wrong side of the street in world capitals, our internal differences are all too obvious.
Then there is the perennial issue of strife within our own families. How many siblings have no relationship with each other? Here in South Africa, the Yiddish word faribel is a household term. It means “bearing a grudge.” Unfortunately, having a faribel is all too common. Brothers and sisters—not to mention brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law—sometimes don’t talk to each other for years; not until they meet at the cemetery when a parent passes on. South Africans may have their own term for it, but it is a universal problem and, all too often, affects families everywhere.
We are severely challenged by our external oppressors. Those in positions of authority—and, in a lesser way, every Jew—must deal with antisemitism. We cannot solve it. We probably cannot even manage it. We can only respond to it as best we can. But we do have the ability to make a difference in our own internal relationships. We each have the means and the potential to address our issues, talk them out and resolve our differences.
Please God, we will preserve and strengthen our national unity and keep the peace in our communities and in our families. May we never again be enslaved; not by outside forces and not even by our own internal challenges.