by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"Please save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav, for I
am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, mother upon children."
The language of this verse appears repetitive. Yaakov had only one
brother, Esav. He could have said "please save me from the hand of my
brother," or "please save me from the hand of Esav," or even "please save
me from the hand of my brother, Esav." Why was it necessary to refer to
both "the hand of my brother" and also "the hand of Esav," as if they were
two different things?
The Ohr HaChaim addresses this question. He says that Esav can approach
Yaakov in two ways: with love, as a brother should -- or as the wicked
Esav. If Esav attacks as a wicked enemy, then it is obvious that Yaakov
needs protection and help. But Yaakov, in his wisdom, perceived that
Esav's love can be equally dangerous -- and he prayed for Divine
assistance to deal with that facet of Esav as well.
Several hundred years ago, we could ask: "what's so dangerous about Esav's
love? Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone loved the Jews?" Today, the
associated dangers are apparent to everyone. In 1999, Harvard Professor
Alan Dershowitz wrote the following in his book, "The Vanishing American
Jew" (Oxmoor House, 2000): "We may be experiencing something unique in
Jewish history -- what I call the post-persecution era of Jewish life --
where we can't count on tsuris (grief), on external persecutions, and on
people hating us to death, to keep us together. The world loves us to
death. And we don't have the answers."
Professor Dershowitz is mistaken. "Maasei Avos Siman L'Banim" -- "the
deeds of the fathers are signposts for the children." Yaakov our father
had "been there, done that." He knew the answers. But the professor is
certainly right to worry -- not knowing the answers has tragic
After many delays, the latest National Jewish Population Survey has
emerged. Despite the desperate efforts of the United Jewish Communities to
spin the data ("American Jewish Community Remains Strong, Committed" reads
the headline of its official press release), even a cursory look at the
data paints a different picture -- one of a "declining, graying
population" (Northern California Jewish Bulletin) which is "older, fewer,
and less fruitful" (Jerusalem Post).
In ten years, the median age of a Jew in America rose from 37 to 41, the
percentage of the population below age 18 fell from 21 to 19%, and the
percentage over age 65 shot from 15 to 19%. By comparison, within the
overall US population the percentage below age 18 is 26%, and above 65 is
Not only are Jews aging and having fewer children, but roughly half of
those children are marrying out. A large majority of intermarried families
do not raise their children as Jews, and at adulthood even a smaller
segment of children from these families self-identify as Jews. This is
what the federations call the "continuity crisis" -- and, as Alan
Dershowitz says, "we don't have the answers."
Except we do.
At the end of Parshas Vayigash, which we will read in several weeks,
Yaakov must go into exile again -- down to Egypt, where he will die,
passing the baton to the next generation of Jews. What does Yaakov do?
"And he sent Yehudah on in front of him to Yosef, to guide the way to
Goshen, and they came to the land of Goshen." [Gen 46:28]
Why does Yaakov need to send an advance team to go scout out the location?
As Rashi points out, the word "to guide," "l'horos," also means "to
instruct." It comes from the same word as "Torah." Yehudah went on ahead
to build a house of learning, from which teaching and instruction would
When Yaakov went down to Egypt, he did not start by building a symphony
hall. He did not found a JCC. He did not even construct a hospital -- for
none of these would maintain the heartbeat of the Jewish people. He built
a House of Study. He built a school.
To claim that "we don't have the answers" is to proclaim oneself ignorant
of the solution we were given thousands of years ago. Go into any Jewish
high school and find out how many of their graduates intermarry -- and, on
the other hand, how many children per family those graduates tend to have.
There's no continuity crisis. It's a myth.
The problem is that most Jewish children are not graduates of Jewish high
schools. The leader of the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the UAHC),
Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie, has called ours "the most Jewishly ignorant
generation in history." It is also an age of unprecedented intermarriage
and decline in Jewish affiliation.
What sort of fool would treat these as two unrelated issues? Who would
imagine that "Jewish identity development" and "Jewish learning" should be
considered separate topics? They are one and the same. Jewish learning is
the only credible and proven path to Jewish identity and affiliation, bar
Yaakov provided the answer. All we need to do is listen!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
[This week's Dvar Torah was excerpted from a longer talk delivered by
Rabbi Menken on the topic of Jewish continuity. To inquire regarding
having this talk given in your community, please email us
or call our office at 410-602-1350.]
Text Copyright © 2003 Torah.org.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis - Torah.org.