FAITH THROUGH ADVERSITY

February 23rd, 2024

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I would like to share just a few of the antisemitic incidents that have been reported in the news in the past few days. I know, I know – Jews have no right to complain about being targeted, especially while the Israeli army remains in Gaza and there’s no ceasefire. After all, as Antonio Guterres of the United Nations put it, “it is important to recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.” Which means that when a Jew gets murdered, raped or kidnapped – because it didn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s ok. Nevertheless, please indulge me.

Let’s begin with that bastion of higher education, Harvard University, surely now on its best behavior after being disparaged for months over its tolerance of antisemitism on campus. Well, apparently not! Because this week, Harvard’s interim president was compelled to come out and criticize a cartoon that had been shared by pro-Palestinian faculty groups on campus. The controversial image was posted on Instagram, and depicted a hand with a star of David and a dollar sign, holding nooses around the figures resembling Muhammad Ali and Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s former president – a classic antisemitic trope that would have been right at home in the Nazi publication Der Stürmer.

Meanwhile, in Walnut Creek, California, during a city council meeting, an individual suddenly launched into an antisemitic tirade, and no one stopped him. The man, who wore a shirt with a swastika and the words “White Power” on it – which should surely have been a red flag to security! – targeted Jewish council member Kevin Wilk with antisemitic slurs, suggested the possibility of another Holocaust, and then concluded his outburst with a Nazi salute.

And then there were the concerts of Jewish-American musician Matisyahu in Tucson, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, that had to be canceled after staff at the venues refused to work on the nights he was due to perform. Matisyahu expressed disappointment over this suppression of dialogue and artistic expression, and labeled the cancellations as antisemitism.

Of course, antisemitic incidents are not confined to the United States. Earlier this week, the leader of Denmark’s Jewish community revealed that there has been a significant rise in antisemitic incidents in the country since October 7th, marking the highest levels of such incidents since World War II. And he said that the rise in Jew-hatred was not just happening in his country. Recent data from his community’s security organization shows that the exponential increase in hatred against Jews – which in Denmark has included 20 death threats made against individual Jews – aligns with similar trends in other European nations. Crucially, it is worth noting that there are only 6,400 Jews in Denmark, in a population of almost 6,000,000 – making Danish Jews just over 0.1% of the population.

And a few days ago, during the World Aquatics Championships in Qatar, Israeli swimmer Anastasia Gorbenko faced jeers from parts of the audience after securing second place in the women’s 400-meter medley. The incident occurred as the 20-year-old was providing poolside remarks following the race at the Aspire Dome in Doha. Gorbenko admitted that she had been provided with full-time security to ensure her safety in Doha, hardly a surprise in a city that hosts the political headquarters of Hamas and is home to its leaders, but clearly an indicator that despite the gulf state and Western ally’s claim to be an “honest broker”, the atmosphere there is deeply antisemitic.

I could go on and on, because there are multiple incidents reported every day, and many more that aren’t reported. Jews are now fair game – old, young, religious, secular – in every country across the world. As Jewish social media influencer Montana Tucker said this week, it is now “popular to be anti-Jew.” According to the TikTok star, social media has made antisemitism “socially acceptable.”

But don’t let any of this get you down. The Jewish people are resilient and strong. A Midrashic passage at the beginning of Parshat Tetzaveh offers a deep, allegorical explanation of both the struggles and the strength of the Jewish people, as represented by the olive tree.

The first verses of Tetzaveh describe the process of producing the purest olive oil possible for the Temple menorah. The use of olive oil for this holy duty is no accident, says the Midrash – because the Jewish nation is compared to an olive tree, based on a verse in Jeremiah (11:16): זַיִת רַעֲנָן יְפֵה פְרִי תֹאַר קָרָא ה’ שְׁמֵךְ – “God has called you a green olive tree, fair, with wonderful fruit.”

The Midrash queries this comparison. “Is Israel only compared to an olive tree? Haven’t they also been likened to all sorts of beautiful and commendable trees?” The Midrash lists several other trees used by scripture as an allegory for the Jewish people: vines, fig trees, palm trees, cedar trees, walnut trees, and pomegranate trees. So why is the olive tree considered the primary allegory?

The Midrash explains that “what is so unique about the olive [is that] while it is in the tree, they beat it; and afterwards they bring it down from the tree and it is beaten [again]; and after being beaten, they take it to the press, and they put them in the mill; and afterwards, they grind them, and then they bind them with ropes, and bring stones, and then they extract its oil. So too Israel – the gentiles come and beat them from place to place, and tie them up, and force them into collars, and bind them in chains. And then they repent, and God answers them.”

The Midrash is using the metaphor of an olive tree to illustrate the resilience and enduring faith of the Jewish people. Just as an olive tree goes through a process of beating, pressing, and grinding to produce oil, so too the Jewish people constantly endures suffering and oppression – but in the final analysis, it always leads them to return to God.

There may be other trees that resonate with Jewish identity, but the olive tree is singled out specifically because of the labored process required to produce oil. The evocative allegory emphasizes the idea that through hardship and adversity, the Jewish people’s true essence and faith emerge more strongly, just as the precious oil is extracted from olives through pressure and adversity.

Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (1855–1926), in his Shem MiShmuel commentary, is troubled by this notion. Why would any nation welcome the “olive tree” comparison? The Shem MiShmuel goes on to offer an enlightening perspective, transforming our understanding of hardship and its role in spiritual growth. He suggests that the comparison of the Jewish people to an olive tree reveals a deeper truth about our inherent nature as a people. Just as the olive contains precious oil that can only be extracted through pressing and crushing, so too, the Jewish people have an inherent potential for goodness and holiness that may require adversity to be fully realized.

The essence of this teaching is not that suffering is desired or that it is the only path to spiritual growth. Rather, it highlights the innate capacity for renewal that exists within us all. The Midrash underscores the idea that change for the better is not about external forces compelling us to act against our will. Instead, it is about those external pressures revealing and refining what is already within us—our core values and beliefs that we may have lost touch with.

If anything has become clear over the past few months since October 7th, it is that we Jews – wherever we are and whatever we have had to endure – contain magnificent olive oil within us, in great abundance and of the highest purity. And the more the antisemites come at us, the clearer this becomes.

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