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How Did Jews Get to be So Annoying?

We Jews generally prefer to be called “Chosen” rather than “Annoying.”  But these adjectives more or less work out to the same thing; it just depends on whether you happen to appreciate Jews or not. Either way, there is no doubting that we Jews, a mere 0.2% of the world’s population are, in some sense, special. For good – and bad – we Jews are change agents, messing with peoples’ heads for thousands of years. We are so very annoying that even in countries that had no Jews at all (e.g. pre-war Japan, pre-Cromwell England) there was widespread negative propaganda about Jews. We are so very special that both our supporters and detractors agree that anti-semtism/anti-zionism is real – they just disagree about whether hating Jews is wrong or merely sensible!

So it seems quite reasonable to ask: how did we Jews get here? I wish to argue that what makes Jews special – and especially annoying — goes way, way back. The special Jewish quality is found in the text of the Torah and in the name for our people. But it does not start out as a very nice story:

Rebekah conceived. But the children struggled in her womb. … When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob.

The instinct, if there was one, was about sibling rivalry, competing with his brother to be the firstborn. The name “Jacob” is a play on the word for “heel.” And this word for heel is first found in the Torah (the only incidence before the birth of Jacob) in the curse of the snake:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel.

Think of imagery of such a name! Jacob is the underdog grasping at his brother’s heel, compared to a snake striking at the heels of mankind. The snake is the bitter and vengeful loser, a creature who relies on ambush and camouflage and deceit in order to bring down its prey. At no time does the snake seek to elevate itself – it just wants to bring others down.  The name, especially within its Torah context, is no compliment.

Arguably, for at least part of his life, Jacob was true to this name. He took advantage of his brother when his brother was weak with hunger; he willingly deceived his father in order to get something he wanted. He stole blessings from his brother.

But if we fast-forward, we see that years later, Jacob becomes a changed man. He develops his own dynamic relationship with G-d. He is the first person in the Torah who consults his wives before making major decisions that affect the family. He is actively engaged with everyone around him: his wives, children, brother, and even the neighboring peoples. Most importantly, his efforts no longer seem to be about Jacob himself: he is working toward a larger and more expansive vision. He makes peace with Esau his brother, effectively correcting his earlier actions. Jacob’s horizons are no longer those of the snake in the grass, but have grown and developed to such an extent that he routinely interacts with angels as well as with men! Indeed, Jacob is the first person who negotiates with G-d, striking a deal after the dream with the angels on a ladder (as opposed to Avraham’s petition on behalf of Sodom which comes with no promises or vows on behalf of the petitioner). Jacob’s is a form of engagement not seen before in the Torah.

So when Jacob wrestles with the angel and refuses to yield, something momentous happens.

Said the other [the angel], “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said [the angel], “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have strivenwith G-d and men and have been capable.”

Of course, the text does not say that Jacob wrestled with an angel. Instead, it says he wrestled “with a man.”  The entire event is shrouded in mystery, which invites a whole host of possible answers, none of which, by design, can be definitive. For example, was Jacob putting himself in a position to flee? In the middle of the night, he made it possible to cut and run, leaving his family and all his possessions to face his potentially-murderous brother, Esau. And so, in the middle of the night, Jacob wrestled with himself.

On the other hand, perhaps G-d sent an angel to keep Jacob there through the night, so he could not get away, forcing him to face his brother and his future head-on. (These – and many more – are possible and within normative Jewish textual analysis.) In a nutshell, the wrestling match in the middle of the night was all about Jacob confronting his fears, his doubts and uncertainty. And so the pronouncement that Jacob “wrestles with men” is really a generic reference – referring to all men, as well as with himself!

What is the conclusion of the wrestling match? Jacob the “grasper” has become Israel the “engager.” Israel is the person who negotiates with G-d, commands angels, argues with his father-in-law, consults with his wives, and scolds his children. And this is Jacob’s legacy, personality traits which are every bit as present within modern Jews as they were in Jacob.

The angel requires Jacob to say his name, his identity, to hear “heel” in his own ears. And then the angel explains that Jacob is no longer the right name: the connection to the snake drops away. Jacob is transformed into Israel. The baby who fought with his brother in the womb has taken that quality and applied it to holiness – actively nudging the whole world in a positive direction rather than merely continuing the Genesis tradition of sibling rivalry (i.e. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, etc.).

Think, too, of the different time horizons of the characters. Esau lived in the moment, and showed no interest in changing himself or the world around him. He came and went. But angels are divine instruments, representing the timeless, connecting (as in the ladder dream) heaven and earth. Jacob’s interests and connections span the entire spectrum. It is in our spiritual blood to wrestle with transient men as well as immortal G-d.

We, the Children of Israel, are, for better or worse, engaged with others, with G-d, and, ideally, with our inner selves as well (Jewish neurosis is as old as the hills). We wrestle with everyone. Want an opinion about your life? No Jew will hesitate to offer one, or more. And it makes us annoying, just as you would expect for people who consider themselves the consciences of the world.

This does not mean, of course, that Jews win. We usually don’t. Even Jacob did not beat the angel – he fought to a stalemate at best (and took damage in that stalemate). Note that the text does not say that Jacob won – it says that he proved “capable.” We Jews are able to argue with anyone, at any time, on just about any subject. It is not even necessarily about winning at all! The value of the argument is found in the process of argumentation itself: the willingness to engage with each other, to seek to grow, to challenge, to be open to the possibility of improvement. Above all, the target of our argumentative style is ourselves, the parts of us with whom we wrestle in the dark, seeking clarity and a clear path forward.

And that is how we Jews became so annoying. We spiritually inherited this instinctive desire to keep pushing, and we have, in every generation, found ways to perpetuate it.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!

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