Being grateful to those who maltreat us is never wise

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Samuel I 20:18-42

This week’s Torah portion gives us some powerful insight into the historical phenomenon of anti-Semitism. “Isaac sowed in the land and in that year he reaped a hundredfold; thus had G-d blessed him. The man became great and kept becoming greater until he was very great. He had acquired flocks and herds and many enterprises and the Philistines envied him. All the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines stopped up and filled with earth and Avimelech [the King] said to Isaac, ‘Go away from us for you have become much wealthier than we!'” (Gen. 26:12-16)

HaEmek Davar, the 19th century commentary, points out that Avimelech demanded that Isaac leave the capital city where the ministers and nobles resided because his wealth was superior to theirs and they were humiliated. This foreshadowed the pales of settlements of future exiles, when Jewish residency rights were severely restricted.

The major argument between Avimelech and Isaac concerning the wells was an example of pure anti-Semitism, which has been characteristic of disputes between the Jewish nation and other nations from that time until today. Even after Avimelech evicts Isaac and he moves to another place, the hatred still follows him. Yet another argument ensues about the wells Isaac has dug.

Finally G-d puts into Avimelech’s heart the desire to deal respectfully with Isaac. Avimelech comes to offer a treaty to which Isaac, whose entire nature is honesty, responds, “You hate me and drove me away from you so why do you come to me?” (Gen. 26:27)

The answer to this question is a model of the anti-Semitic behavior that already existed in biblical times. Avimelech wants Isaac to be grateful that he did not imprison or enslave him or worse, but allowed him to leave the country after having his land and his wells confiscated. “We have done you nothing but good and we sent you away in peace,” he says. (Gen. 26:29)

This strange view of Avimelech is the subject of a parable in Bereisheet Rabbah 64: A lion cries out, offering a reward to anyone who would remove a bone stuck in his throat. A bird sticks its long beak into the lion’s throat and removes the bone. When the bird asks for his reward, the lion answers, “You want a reward? It is enough that you put your beak in my mouth and survived without my swallowing you.”

Avimelech says to Isaac, “You were in my land and I threw you out penniless but intact. For that you should be grateful.”

Sadly, many Jews have absorbed this point of view, being excessively grateful to any country that allowed them to reside there in relative safety at least for a time.

When the Philistines sealed up Isaac’s wells, the king ignored it, making the all-too-familiar claim, “All the wealth that you acquired, was that not from us? Once you had only a single flock and now you have many.” The fact that Isaac had guarded and tended the flocks was irrelevant. “Go from us because you have become much wealthier than we.”

The Chafetz Chaim, the great early 20th century sage of Radin, Poland, points out that this is the typical complaint of the anti-Semite. Pharaoh says, “Behold the people of the children of Israel are greater and mightier than we.” (Exod. 1:9) Jewish history is replete with experiences of building up the economy of a nation only to be expelled when their success was too obvious.

Oznayim La Torah, the 20th century commentary, adds another detail that illuminates the behavior of anti-Semites. They will always wait to voice their complaint until after the Jew has been successful. Only after Isaac had increased his flocks and dug wells did they come to say, “The water is ours.” But if they were claiming that the land was theirs, why then did they allow Isaac to dig the well? Obviously, they intended to benefit from his hard work and ingenuity.

May we soon merit that the nations will reach out to us in peace and look upon our nation not with jealousy but with sincere admiration.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.