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Home » Environment, Vayeshev

Vayeshev: Identity Crisis

Submitted by on December 15, 2015 – 10:58 pmNo Comment | 2,818 views

The Schism

Are you different things to different people? Do your workplace and home environment support conflicting values? Is your social culture different from your religious culture? Does your family live by one ethos and your neighbors by another?

How do you deal with the dichotomy? Do you blend in wherever you go or do you avoid the places that don’t agree with the real you? Is there a real you and do you still know him/her?

Coming to America many Jews struggled with reconciling the pathos of Judaism and modernity. It was almost like a split personality. Don the Kippah in the home, remove it on the street. Speak Yiddish to your parents and English to your neighbors. Discuss shull news indoors and your local sports team outdoors. They were pulled in different direction until they grew twisted.

Unable to live with the constant schism, Jews in America developed a paranoia with one of the two outlets. Some Jews spurned the street and lived in ghetto like neighborhoods. Other Jews spurned the synagogue and made peace with the street. These Jews enjoyed a solid identity, but the other side was foreign to them. If they were in the ghetto, they knew little of America. If they were in America, they knew little of Judaism.

Then there was a third group that embraced both sides, but led a torturous existence. Unsure of their true loyalties, they swayed with the wind. They became expert chameleons, feeling out audiences and adapting accordingly. Always sensitive to their surroundings, they knew exactly what to say when, but inside, they were empty. Somehow they muddled through, but when they looked in the mirror, little in the way of identity stared back.

These Jews braved it out, but their children, the next generation let it go. To them, Judaism was a source of constant angst, keeping you from fitting in. You could attend Public High School, but not the Friday night football game. You could go to church, but you couldn’t take communion. You could date non-Jews, but you couldn’t marry them. This was a stifling Judaism and they wanted little to do with it.

Still, it didn’t solve their problem. Because deep inside they remained Jewish. They might have broken outward ties with their faith, but the core doesn’t change. If you are Jewish in your core, you are Jewish all the way through. It just takes a trigger to blow it open. That trigger came in the form of Jewish Independence in the Holy Land. Suddenly, Jews with little outward connection to Judaism emerged from the woodwork in support of their people, their land and yes, their identity.

A people that believed itself to be as American as Apple Pie, as Canadian as Molson Beer and Ice Hockey, parted ways with their neighbors and friends, showing their true colors. They were out and out Jews. They didn’t know how to express their heritage religiously, so they found an outlet in Zionism. Their Judaism became staunchly and proudly expressed through their patriotic ties to Israel.

Once again there was a wedge between them and their neighbors. They were staunchly in favor of Israel and their neighbors were staunchly indifferent or opposed. Once again, Jews learned to test the wind and choose their words carefully. Can we feel free to share our opinions or is it wiser to keep quiet in present company.

Ladies and gentlemen, the schism is back. And in full force. With Israel constantly in the news, Jews feel the strong pull of their identity. Despite the mass exodus from the synagogues, they are wrestling the same demons that their grandparents wrestled before them. Some deal with it by muddling through life trying to figure out what they can say and where. Others deal with it by turning against Israel, but that doesn’t solve their problems either. These Jews are reviled by their fellow Jews and secretly mocked by the non-Jews. So what is the solution, are we forever destined to struggle?

Jacob Settles

My dear friends the answer to our dilemma is the one espoused by Jacob. “And Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojourn.”[1]

Where his father sojourned, Jacob settled. His father was not so comfortable being a Jew among pagans. He was a sojourner, a stranger in his own land, never a settler. But Jacob was perfectly comfortable. He was proudly, happily and unabashedly Jewish even in the pagan environment. Jacob wasn’t a schism. He was a bridge. He brought peace between G-d and His world.

Jacob looked at it this way. The same G-d that created the Pagans created me. Who is to say this G-d can only be served where pagans are not present? He should be served everywhere. That the pagans reject His existence doesn’t change the basic fact of His Omnipresence.

In Laban’s home Jacob was an outsider, cheated and mocked by the landlord. When he returned to Israel, he decided that enough would finally be enough. He wouldn’t be made to feel like an outsider among pagans. Let them feel like outsiders in his presence. I am a Jew at home and on the street. I worship the one true G-d. Let them make of it what they will. I won’t cede any parts of G-d’s world.

This wasn’t about Jacob, it was about G-d. Jacob didn’t pit his ego against his neighbors, had he done that, he might have lost heart because in the end he was the minority. Instead, he responded to G-d’s manifest presence. If G-d is truly present on the street, then ignoring him isn’t cowardly, it’s blasphemous. Fully transparent to G-d, Jacob became a vehicle for G-d’s courage. Divine strength pulsated through Jacob.

Jacob desired to settle in peace.”[2] He decided to settle down in the pagan environment and stop fighting. Stop fighting to hide his religion and stop fighting to be a stranger in his land. This is G-d’s land and by G-d I am proud of it. I will settle in and make peace. Peace between G-d and His world.

Learning from Jacob

Let’s borrow some of Jacob’s clarity and stop assimilating into the larger culture. We don’t need to provoke hostility and pick fights, we just need to be proud of our own heritage. Let’s stop adopting gentile values, customs and culture. We don’t need to object or interfere, we just need to resist making it our own. Wherever we go, let’s be good ambassadors for G-d and Israel.

If and when we do, we will find a surprising reward. When we finally jettison our shame and fear, the very people we were hoping to blend with, will accept us. The very people whose rejection we feared will respect us. Jacob can don Esau’s garments and strive to look like Esau. But Esau isn’t so easily fooled. When Esau looks at Jacob, he sees a Jacob and doesn’t understand why Jacob is wearing the wrong garments. You are Jewish, they say, stop hiding it. And when we do, we gain their respect.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it best. “I have found that people respect Jews who respect themselves. And I have found that people do not respect Jews that do not respect ourselves.”[3]

[1] Genesis 37a.

[2] Rashi ibid.

[3] This essay is adapted from LIkutei Sichos v. 15 pp. 310-317.