A time for renewed Jewish pride

The Isaac Covenant, part II. A concept that putting the Jewish people's relations with the world into the context of the Patriarchs.

Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer

Judaism Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer
Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer

In a previous essay, I introduced the notion that, of the three Avos (Patriarchs), Yitzchak (Isaac) was the Av whose life story mirrored our time more than his holy father or son.  Central to that analysis was the deeply insightful explication by Rav Samson R Hirsch of the verse “Then will I remember My covenant with Yaakov; I will remember also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham; and I will remember the land”.  (Vayikra 26:42).

He argued that each of the Avos represented a different era of Jewish history, not only in the past, but in the stages of the future redemption.  In particular, there was a difference between the Jacob era – where he was buffeted by troubles, hated, attacked, and persecuted – and the era of Isaac, who was not loved by his neighbors but tolerated, who was successful financially not by engaging in subterfuge (as Jacob had to in order to counter the mischievous thievery of Laban and murderous intent of Esau), but rather by acting forthrightly and receiving the blessing of Hashem, much to the consternation of his neighbors and competitors.  He earned their grudging respect and admiration, and he lived as an equal among them.

In the context of the verse in Bechukosai which discusses the end of the Exile, i.e. our national future, Rav Hirsch predicts that the time of the Isaac Covenant will come when “they will suffer the envy of the nations. . . In the midst of growing prosperity, living among nations wavering between humaneness and envy, they will have to preserve their unique character as did Isaac.  They will have to employ their resources, ampler and less restricted than before, for a more perfect and multifaceted fulfillment of their unique mission in the Golus (Exile). . .”.

Rav Hirsch hoped that in the post-emancipation bourgeois openness of Western Europe of the nineteenth century, the time had come that “Now we are facing the test of the second stage Isaac Covenant; to walk, free and independent among the nations, not to fear to be different, and to remain undeterred by envy. . . a test we still have to pass.”  Clearly, with the hindsight of looking at what emanated from twentieth century Germany, the Rav’s hope was tragically premature.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that with the success, power, influence and stature of the Jewish people the world over, and – most tellingly – with the incredible gift of Hashem that is the State of Israel (notwithstanding all of its flaws . . . more about that later), we have truly entered into a new level of interaction with and relationship to the world around us – an era that I am sure Rav Hirsch would identify as “The Isaac Covenant”. [1] 

This idea, I deeply believe, is far more than an interesting commentary on Chumash (Pentateuch) or side-note to history.  It speaks, or ought to speak, to the essence of how the Jewish people should see themselves internally and vis a vis the rest of the world: we are living in a new era.   The paradigm has changed.  We need to see ourselves and the world around us differently than our predecessors in Eurasia and North Africa.   We are no longer in the era of the Jacob Covenant; we are now living the Isaac Covenant.

As this way of thinking affects literally everything, there are infinite examples of where this should be applied. I will limit myself in this essay to only two. 

First – The Torah portion of Vayishlach begins with the encounter between Jacob and Esau upon his return, for which Jacob prepared assiduously in three ways, with prayer, appeasement, and if necessary, for war.  A famous Midrash Rabba states that when Rabbi Judah the Prince would go to the foreign government (Rome), he would first review Parashat Vayishlach, to gain insight as to how to deal with our enemies.  We read of the incredibly large gift that he prepared for Esau, and of the incredible obeisance that he showed by prostrating himself before Esau many times while calling himself the servant of Esau the master.  

This all had the desired effect; Esau was overwhelmed by Jacob’s subservience, and almost like an animal who will refrain from attacking another animal that lies prostrate and helpless before it, Esau magnanimously offered friendship and brotherhood to Jacob, who politely declined the offer, avoiding confrontation until the distant future.

While this was apparently[2] the correct course of action for Jacob to take at that place and time, I admit to feeling uneasy when reading it.  I believe this is because it was a prime example of the Jacob Covenant.   In such times, one avoided confrontation with the Gentile at almost all costs, and sought to appease and show subservience.   It was a time of Golus, a time when we were in disfavor, and had to see our place as accepting the low national status, and subservience that went with it.

It was a Jacob time, and I, as a child of the Isaac covenant, find it hard to relate to. It pains me to think of Jacob groveling before that scoundrel even given whatever legitimate complaints Esau might have had against him.  But I know that Jews from previous generations, for whom a subservient attitude to the Poritz (Feudal Landlord), Czar, priest, Cossack, or whoever else we had the misfortune of living with, would relate to this far more naturally.

I enjoy singing zemiros (special songs) on Shabbos.  In the older zemiros books there is a long zemer which begins “Ma Yofis”.   With the exception of the barely singable chant that my father z”l knew from Frankfurt, I have never heard of any nigun for this lengthy zemer, although it contains many beautiful and interesting lyrics. I have always wondered why “no one sings that”, (other than the cynical “it’s too long” . . .)

And then, in my reading, I encountered the term, a “Ma Yofis Jew.   According to the Dictionary of Jewish Usage [3] a mayofisnik is a Yiddish term “used pejoratively to describe a Jew lacking in dignity or pride, especially one who is given to servile flattery of gentiles . . . According to legend, the Sabbath song Ma Yofis was sung with a special melody [4] by Polish Jews, and the nobles they worked for often requested that the Jews sing ma yofis for their entertainment; hence ‘to sing ma yofis’ to a gentile came to mean to serve him obsequiously or slavishly.” At long last the light went on for me. Perhaps Jews no longer wanted to be Ma Yofis Jews . . . the feelings and associations with that beautiful nigun belonged to the past. An Isaac Covenant Jew is a mayofisnik no longer; he recoils at the thought of being a servile flatterer of the gentile overlord. 

This, of course, has major implications for the way we relate to the non-Jewish authorities and governments of the world.
Some of our leaders seem to begin with the notion that, “Remember, we are in Golus. We have to be subservient. Better not to engage in any confrontational behavior, no matter how right our cause, because we have to remember our place”.  Others, however, recognize that we live in a time that we have been given unprecedented power, wealth, influence and stature in society, and not only is there nothing wrong with advocating for our needs and issues from a place of strength and self-respect, it is incumbent upon us to do so! [5] 

Some of our leaders seem to begin with the notion that, “Remember, we are in Golus. We have to be subservient. Better not to engage in any confrontational behavior, no matter how right our cause, because we have to remember our place”.
The advocacy that some of our national organizations, notably the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, have undertaken in furthering our community’s interests have this mindset when they are at their best.  They argue effectively and forcefully, while at the same time politely and non-confrontationally for our rights and privileges, and more power to them.   I only wish that they would be able to articulate their work in a manner fully consistent with the Isaac Covenant time we live in, which would be so helpful in influencing the community conversation on so many issues and moving from a focus on smaller concerns to the broader Isaac Covenant, pre-Messianic times that we have the exciting privilege of living in.

Another example of how this way of thinking should inform us is in regard to a topic I have written extensively about before, namely our attitude to the Har Habayit (Temple Mount). Briefly, I argued that while there is a legitimate halalkhic dispute about the propriety, for now, of visiting certain sections of the Har Habayit in our state of ritual impurity, tum’ah, there should be no dispute about our national right and need to strongly assert that it is OUR national shrine, and WE own that holy place, and not the contemptuous Islamic Waqf.  It is literally up to us to actualize Gen. Motta Gur’s prophetic words “Har Habayit Biyadeinu” – The Temple Mount is in our hands – it is in our hands to either assert our rights, as Isaac Covenant Jews, or to say that since Mashiach has not come yet, we have no rights there at all.

There are many more examples of applying the Isaac way of thinking …relating…   There is much that I still hope to address, including our relationship to the Jewish State, Medinat Yisrael, how we await the coming of the Mashiach, how we negotiate the tension between insularity and openness to the world around us, and much more.

I will end with a thought that struck me while thinking about this. An amazing passage in the Zohar[6] predicts that at the End of Time before the Mashiach, the descendants of Ishmael will try to prevent Jews from returning to their homeland, and cause wars and hostilities the world over until the descendants of Esau begin to fight them, leading to the War of Gog uMagog (Armageddon).  It has become clearer and clearer, as history develops, that our main battle today is no longer the one between Jacob and Esau, but rather the one between Isaac and Ishmael.  

It is during this time, perhaps, that we need the zechus, or merit of our Father Isaac, to protect us even more than the other Avos, (as mentioned in the previous essay).  We need to live in this consciousness, to leave the Ma Yofis attitudes to the past, and to embrace the thrill of the exciting time in which we get to live – the time of the Isaac Covenant.


[1] The antagonistic attitude of Rav Hirsch to Zionism while living in the mid nineteenth century is interesting, but mostly irrelevant to a very changed world today.
[2] This is far from settled.  There are major disputes in the Midrash and among the Rishonim between those who view these actions of Jacob positively and those who criticize him severely, going so far as to say that this was the cause of many later problems with Rome.  Cf. Bereishis Rabba 75, Ramban 32:4.
[3] Steinmetz, Sol Dictionary of Jewish Usage: A Guide to the Use of Jewish Terms, Rowman & Littlefield 2005, pp106-107.,
[4] Interestingly, when researching this essay i came across an old instrumental recording entitled Ma Yofis.  I know this tune well; but in our family we would sing it to Libi UveSari.
[5] One of the greatest influences on this way of thinking in our time, IMHO, was Rav Meir Kahane, HY”D.  While he was a controversial figure partially due to some of his pronouncements and mostly to the way he was unfairly criticized and maligned in the press, his basic message – which I believe is crucially important – was that we ought to have self-respect and Jewish pride, doing what we need to protect our own interests, unafraid of “what will the Goyim say”.  His much-misunderstood slogan of “Never Again” was a call to never repeat the impotent, meek, abashed response of the American Jewish community during the Holocaust, who should have instead taken to the streets and badgered their elected officials demanding that the US government bomb the tracks to Auschwitz, etc.   He was a Jew who lived every day in the spirit of the Isaac covenant, and had no patience any longer for the Jacob covenant. 
[6] Va’era 32a