When the sons of Jacob went to Egypt for food they became victims of a cruel ruse. As we recently read in the weekly Torah portion, when the provisions the brothers had acquired were loaded on horse and wagon for the return trip to Canaan, the Egyptian viceroy’s cup was stealthily planted into the sack of the youngest, Benjamin.
The Egyptians generously allowed the unsuspecting brothers to depart, then chased after them and, in the search that followed, apprehended the “thief.”
We can easily imagine the consternation of the brothers. The “thief” who “stole” the royal goblet turned out to be Benjamin, the darling of their elderly father, Jacob.
Benjamin – whose safety they guaranteed to Jacob; Benjamin – whom Jacob had not wished to release for the long journey from Canaan to Egypt; Benjamin – without whom Judah would not wish to return home.
The brothers were pained beyond endurance and in their mournful anguish “they rent their garments.” For the crime of theft Benjamin would conceivably be condemned to perpetual enslavement in Egypt – a tragic blow to Jacob and his family.
Regaining his composure, Judah proceeded to present a heartrendingly beautiful plea to the powerful Egyptian viceroy.
But anguish, sorrow, and regret were not the only reactions of the brothers. The Midrash Tanchuma tells us, hayu omdim umakim l’Binyamin – they slapped Benjamin in anger and frustration for the theft and the shame he brought upon them, accepting the Egyptian claim of their brother’s guilt.
After all, wasn’t he found with the incriminating evidence in hand (or in sack), proving incontrovertibly he was the thief?
None thought of questioning the Egyptian accusation. None thought of looking into Benjamin’s moves or motives while in the Egyptian capital – whether he had even a single moment alone when he could steal such a precious object from a palace guarded, no doubt, by a thousand pairs of watchful eyes.
None seemed to cry out, Wait! It is impossible! I know this young man for many years, and that is just not him! He is not a thief! His hands have been clean all these years! Wait! Check! See! Maybe it is a mistake.
There was no challenge, only acceptance. The stranger did it, said the Egyptian, and so it was.
The story of Benjamin has a happy ending, but that does not diminish from our consternation that the brothers were so ready to pounce upon him hand and fist – hayu omdim umakim l’Binyamin.
They were ready to act on the basis of Egyptian accusations and punish the alleged perpetrator, to finish the intended job of the Egyptians without giving their brother even the benefit of the doubt.
* * * * *
We Jews did it then, and we are still doing it now. As they did then, nearly 4,000 years ago, so today the nations accuse us – and we do not question. As a matter of sad fact we, like obedient children, listen to them – and we finish the job for them. We punish ourselves without mercy.
It is bad enough if the nations wish to believe all the accusations they have contrived and heaped upon us throughout history. But if we Jews join in the fray umakim l’Binyamin, slapping and hitting and bashing Benjamin – at our brothers, at ourselves – it not merely bad, it is monstrous.
Granted, it may be understandable that Benjamin’s brothers did not suspect a ruse, a trick, a dirty game. For them it was a first. But we? We are old hands at it. We have been accused of every conceivable crime under the sun.
We were accused of crucifying Jesus at a time when the power of capital punishment wasn’t even in our hands but in those of the conquering Romans.
We were accused of bleeding and killing innocent Christian children to utilize by some black magic their red blood in preparing our white matzah.
We were accused of conspiring devilishly to gain control of all the power centers of humanity – described so vividly in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
We were accused of defiling virgin maidens, of cheating, of acting treacherously, of having turned into the embodiment of the formidable Satan himself.
We know – at least we should know – what the world has been saying about us, what it thinks of us. We certainly know – we should know – that the world has not been acting truthfully when it’s come to the Jewish people or the state of Israel.
Being hypocritical toward us, deceiving us, deliberately falsifying information about us, and, most recently, presenting masterfully contrived photo montages as “solid proof” against us – these are not considered dishonest and wrong in the universal vocabulary of nations.
In some countries people are tortured, starved and butchered without a voice being raised by the nations or NGOs. At the same time, Israel has been quite consistently condemned, virtually unanimously, by the UN and NGOs for allegedly maltreating its Arab minority without even the remotest reference to the vastly improved standard of life of the Arabs in Israel and their vastly improved longevity, by comparison even to the highest standards in Arab countries in the Middle East.
The world believes Israel mistreats its minorities – even as just last month 60,000 Christians were offered free bus transportation on the eve of Christmas from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and Christians from Gaza were allowed free unhampered passage to Bethlehem through Israel.
(Forgive the comparison, but when the Kotel was in Arab hands no Jews could get to it. Neither could Jews get to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, or to Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem.)
We cannot, of course, control the nations that wish to plant stolen cups in our bag. We have no defense against that. Having maligned us for ages, they instinctively seek out reason after flimsy reason, legend after legend, invention after invention, fantasy after fantasy.
Our concern should be with ourselves – our sisters and brothers who accept every accusation defaming Israel as if it were the Lord’s word from Sinai. Our dismay should be with those among us who are pathologically self-effacing, slapping mercilessly at their own blood, their own kin – makim l’Binyamin – for alleged crimes that have no basis in reality.
Our concern should be with the tendency among too many Jews to accept and internalize accusations hurled at us by parties who are more interested in burying us alive than in safeguarding justice.
Achad Ha’am wrote in one of his essays (“Chatzi Nechamah” or “Half a Consolation”) almost a century ago on the same theme. My coreligionists, he lamented, are trying to escape our religion and our people and believe all the terrible things the world is saying about us. Maybe it will help strengthen our backbone if we consider how totally false the widespread belief is of the use of Christian blood for our Jewish rituals.
(At this point it behooves us to interrupt Achad Ha’am for a moment to remind ourselves of only a few of the major blood libel accusations that Jews suffered through either during his lifetime or in the years just prior to his birth in 1856: Damascus 1840, Tisza-Eszlar 1882, Polna 1899, Kiev 1911.)
Achad Ha’am concluded his essay with the following memorable words we ought to engrave with an iron pen on the parchment of our mind:
“Is it possible that the whole world is guilty and the Jews are innocent? That the whole world is wrong and we are right? EFSHAR VE’EFSHAR. It is indeed possible. The blood libel proves it. On this the Jews are really as clean and pure as the heavenly angels. Jews and the use of Christian blood! Can there be a greater contrast than that? And yet VE’AF AL PI CHEN .”
* * * * *
And yet still today we are beating our brother Benjamin, and by extension ourselves, when it should be clear the cup has been planted in our bag by our adversaries. The ideologies and theologies of other nations can tolerate only a humiliated Jew who is crawling in the dust. Not necessarily destroyed, not necessarily maimed, but crawling in the dust of the earth, spat upon and humiliated.
Just look at what our brother Judge Goldstone, at what J Street, at what Jewish students on college campuses, at what Jewish NGOs abroad and in Israel have been doing to us in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza – declaring us guilty and outcast, condemning us for having broken the most elementary laws of human conduct.
By way of refreshing contrast, consider the words of the president of Sapir College in Sderot, Prof. Ze’ev Tzachor, a leading academic who happens to be an outspoken, self-described left-winger. On the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead he wrote in Yediot Aharonot:
The eight years that preceded the Gaza Campaign seem like a nightmare . In the course of these years there were days when the number of siren warnings amounted to more than 30 . How does a class function in a setup when every few minutes a siren warning shakes up all present? How does one give a grade to students whose exam is interrupted by a kassam landing in the college courtyard and who right after the BOOM have to focus once again on their exam? And a minute later another warning, followed by dozens of alarmed parents and loved ones calling: Are there any wounded? Was it close?
But for the world the Gaza conflict doesn’t begin years ago, with thousands of kassams raining down on Jewish communities during that time, for that would justify Operation Cast Lead.
No, for the world the conflict begins when Israel attacks, and no consideration is given to the possibility that it was an attack in self-defense.
Conveniently, if the conflict began a year ago, it becomes a foregone conclusion that Israel must be the attacker, the aggressor, the guilty party. The cup is planted in our bag for the whole world to see.
Behold, the Jew is in his rightful place – crawling in the dust where he belongs according to the ideology and theology and folk wisdom of even the most advanced nations.
And our Jewish sisters and brothers worldwide swallow this bilge as if it were the waters of Eden. Perhaps it is time to heed Elie Wiesel’s declaration that sometimes the most rational response to evil is anger.
We all have a right to be angry with the nations in the midst of whom we dwell, with the organizations, the NGOs, the prominent individuals who are self-serving, who begin history at a point that proves their distorted stand, whose worldview is saturated with seething hatred rather than truth and justice.
Beyond anger, it is time to speak up for ourselves, recognizing full well that the so-called evidence proving Israel’s widespread lust for war, for blood, for vengeance – for willfully killing civilians – is so much hogwash, masterfully manipulated by interested parties.
It is time for our people everywhere to recognize that, with the exception of insignificant numbers, Jews in Israel crave genuine peace, whereas the other side genuinely craves only one overriding goal: the destruction of Israel.
Let us not be of those who makim l’Binyamin, who slap their brother because the nations present him in their own distorted light. Let us not fall into the trap of the nations that wish to plant a smelly rat in our bag.
* * * * *
We live in critical times. Look at the magnitude of the problems that beset us in Israel.
We are preoccupied with the heartrending problem of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit and the new Pandora’s box the solution of that problem may open. We face external existential threats emanating from Iran and are continually concerned with a renewed intifada (as witness the recent murder of Rav Meir Avshalom Chai).
And all the while we have to cope with a stream of virtually unanimous condemnations flooding us from abroad, as Israel is judged incapable of doing the right thing – and evidently always will be, short of committing national suicide by giving up secure borders in favor of its diehard enemies.
And yet, and yet…
As we drown in the above-mentioned concerns, we are liable to overlook the absolute miracle of which we are a part.
In Israel we open our eyes every morning and look upon a Jewish state our fathers could only dream about for 2,000 years. It is ours – proudly defended by our children and grandchildren. It is ours – vital and energetic and productive, like no other land on this globe.
If only Israel’s adversaries would finally cease and desist in their antagonism, in their relentless pressures, in wasting their energies on devising ingenious ways of planting new royal cups in Israel’s bag, the creative genius of the Jewish people in their own land would benefit all mankind in ways thus far unimagined.
We Jews are sustained by the realization that we have endured – and triumphed over – situations much worse than that in which we find ourselves today.
After the destruction of the First Temple our people were in the midst of the Babylonian exile when the Prophet Ezekiel projected a future that no people had ever experienced and could ever anticipate under similar conditions, with the God of Israel bringing them back to their ancient homeland where they and their offspring would dwell in peace and security.
As we sat captive on the riverbanks of Babylon, conditions were not exactly favorable for the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s words. Similarly, a present-day observer might find conditions less than favorable for the realization of modern Israel’s decades-long dream of peace and security.
But just as Ezekiel’s vision was realized just decades after the destruction of the Temple, there is no reason to doubt, despite all obstacles in the way, the ultimate triumph of Israel in attaining not just peace and security but also an exalted place among the family of nations.
Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.
Dr. Ervin Birnbaum