Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The battle between Esav and Yaakov ends peacefully without any shots fired, but the far-reaching effects of this encounter reverberate throughout history.

The one chapter prophet of our haftarah, Ovadia, was a convert who descended from Esav. He is truly fitting to be the one to reprimand Esav for straying from the morals and ideals he learned from his father, Yitzchok. The haftarah forces us to reflect on the general role of non-Jews in the world, and allows us to address a problem in our frum society.

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Too often, too many of us make racist jokes and use racist slurs. Let us state emphatically – this is very wrong!

Allow me to quote from Rav Yitzchak Adlerstein: “Loose lips sink ships,” went the World War II slogan urging Americans to be more discreet about sensitive security matters. Today’s advice to the frum community might be “loose lips kill neshamos.” It is more than clear that the price of using ethnic humor and racial slurs is souls lost to the community of practicing Jews.

She was witty, charming, frum, and a Harvard Law School graduate. She was also black, and living as a single woman in an Orthodox neighborhood. One Purim, she was treated in a local shul to the sight of a young mother with a few children in tow. As her Purim get-up, the mother had chosen to adorn herself and her kids with blackface and thick lips. The connection to Purim was not clear. The black Jewess, recounting to me why she eventually left that community and relocated to another state, outside of a frum area, had this comment. “What was that woman trying to tell me? What was she trying to say?” 

In all likelihood, she was saying nothing at all. She probably gave no conscious thought to the message that she broadcast. She did not mean to deliberately offend anyone; it just seemed like a cute thing to do. Her lack of malice, however, did not reduce the collateral damage of her actions.  

This was no isolated incident. Frum teachers in our community use racial and ethnic slurs in the classroom; too many rabbonim still use disparaging language – or words like shvartze – thinking that they are harmless within the “in” group.  

Like it or not, many people look down on those who have no issue with racist humor or remarks. To them, it is the antithesis of the refinement and discernment that they expect to see in an elevated soul. Racial humor is built upon stereotyping, upon ignoring the differences between individuals rather than noting and savoring them. It is about looking at an amorphous collective, rather than respecting individuals as individuals. It is about blaming, rather than understanding. It is about focusing on the negative, and giving little or no credit for the positive. 

It is suspect of coming from a place of insecurity, where one’s own faults don’t seem so onerous when they can be compared with a group that is assumed to be even more blameworthy. Anyone who can take these reactions lightly must have a Torah bookshelf from which the words “chilul Hashem” have been deleted.”

It was said (Berachos 17a) about Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai that no one ever greeted him first; he was always the first to greet people, even a “nochri b’shuk,” even a non-Jew in the market. The Gemara specifically mentions the market to emphasize that one shouldn’t merely greet people that he knows, people he “has to greet” so he doesn’t insult them; rather, he should greet everyone, even strangers in the market, even people he’ll likely never see again. Why is this so important?

Ve’ahavata es Hashem Elokecha – sheyiheyeh Shem Shamayim misahev al yadecha,” there is a mitzvah to love Hashem which includes making Hashem more beloved in people’s eyes (Yoma 86a). If you truly love someone, you want everyone else to love them as well. When I send a message to those around me that a religious Jew is genteel and courteous, I send a message that the Torah stands for derech eretz, that the Torah is a beautiful way of life, that Hashem who commanded the dictates of the Torah is worth “getting to know’ and is worth loving. I sanctify G-d’s Name and make a kiddush Hashem.

This is why the Maharal (Derech Chaim, Avos 4:14) writes that we must greet all people, even resha’im, because if we do not greet them they will attribute it to our lack of decency. Wicked people never think of themselves as wicked and won’t ascribe our ignoring and not acknowledging them as due to their wickedness and the fact that we think they don’t deserve respect. Rather, they will walk away feeling that religious Jews have no derech eretz. If we greet all people with a very simple, quick, and easy “Hello, good morning,” we create more potential love for the Ribbono Shel Olam in the world.

The Artscroll biography of Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky (page 251), has an entire chapter devoted to Rav Yaakov’s magnificent respect and derech eretz for all, and tells a very instructive short story which highlights this point: “Gentiles too were treated with utmost respect and good humor. A Monsey resident was surprised to be stopped one day by the Mother Superior of a convent across the street from Rav Yaakov’s house. She wanted to know why the convent’s Jewish neighbors averted their eyes or crossed to the other side of the street whenever one of the nuns passed by. Except, that is, one old rabbi (Rav Yaakov), who always made a point of giving them a friendly greeting and a warm smile.”

Here’s another story from that chapter: “Rav Yaakov was once talking to someone when a gentile funeral procession passed by. He accompanied the funeral cortege the requisite four amos. When the person with whom he had been talking expressed surprise that one is required to accompany the body of a non-Jew, Rav Yaakov told him, ‘He, too, was created b’tzelem Elokim, in G-d’s Image.’”

We are meant to emulate Hashem and act kindly to all people. Thus, we must eradicate racism in our midst.

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To schedule a speaking engagement with the educator and author of five books, Rabbi Boruch Leff, contact: sbleff@gmail.com.