France, Napoleon, Islam and the Alter Rebbe
As Paris burning — and anti-Semitism — dominate headlines and our consciousness, some coinciding events were too glaring to ignore: The first documented story of institutionalized subjugation and genocide of Jews in these week’s Torah chapters; a prescient Zohar at the end of this week’s portion foretelling Ishmael (ancestor of the Arab/Muslim world) attacking Esau (forbearer of the Western world); and the 202nd yahrzeit of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, as he was fleeing the advance of the French army on Russia.
Upon connecting the dots of these seemingly unrelated events a stunning relevant image emerges, shedding a revolutionary new light on the current unfolding drama.
Beyond the immediate tragic events happening in Paris — and the imminent threats around the world to Jews and all good citizens — is there something bigger transpiring here?
The best way to understand the here and now is to step back, lift ourselves above the fray, and take a birds’ eye view of the unfolding drama. As always, placing things in the sweep of historical context, looking at the big picture, provides us with critical insight into the current frame and chapter, allowing us to forge a strategy and chart a direction going forward.
France and the Jewish people have a long, complicated and tenuous relationship.
Some of the greatest Middle Age Jewish massacres took place in France. In the 13th century King Louis IX expelled the Jews. And then, the 19th century scarred by the infamous Dreyfus Affair in the 19th century, which exposed the deep-seated French anti-Semitism — a scar that continues to haunt, only to be overshadowed by French complicity with the Nazis.
No wonder the shock elicited by the latest murders of Jews in the kosher supermarket, in the wake the Charlie Hebdo massacre — following the 2006 torturous murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006, and the 2012 slaughter of three children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and other subsequent attacks — exposing the open, raw and long-standing wound which marks the extended history of French prejudice.
To better understand France’s complex history with the Jews, let us travel back to the Franco-Russian War of 1812.
During that war, after Napoleon invaded Russia, Jewish leaders in Russia broke into two camps, one supporting the victory of French Emperor Napoleon, the other Russian Czar Alexander I. The former felt that if Napoleon won the war material life would become much easier for Jews. Napoleon, after all, is credited with being a major force in effecting Jewish emancipation, to the point that, by contrast, Alexander vehemently denounced the liberties given to the Jews by the French and demanded that the Orthodox Church protest against Napoleon’s tolerant religious policy. He referred to the Emperor in a proclamation as “the Anti-Christ” and the “Enemy of God.”
The latter group of Jewish leaders, however, argued that though Napoleon’s victory offered physical emancipation of the oppressed, it would compromise Jewish spiritual life. Napoleon, after all, represented an atheistic, self-glorifying, G-dless enlightenment, which threatened to assimilate and all but destroy the soul of the Jews unready for the challenges of the modern world. Russia’s victory, on the other hand, would assure that the spiritual integrity of Jewish life would be preserved.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe, was a major voice in the Jewish opposition to Napoleon. His position was the one that ultimately prevailed. (for the detailed story click here). Rabbi Schneur Zalman was obviously not opposed to freedom from material oppression. What he wisely recognized was that this freedom has to be attained gradually, so as not to overwhelm the tenuous nature of spiritual life in a material world. And his fears were confirmed in the events that took place in Europe during the 19th century: Modern assimilation was birthed as a result of a people unprepared for the challenges of accelerated emancipation.
The Alter Rebbe was actually taking a cue from the Biblical Jacob, who made a similar statement to his twin brother Esau 3571 years ago:
In Biblical terms the battle between matter and spirit is the struggle between Esau and Jacob. After Esau and Jacob reconcile, Esau invites Jacob to become his neighbor.
Jacob replies, “My lord you know that the children are tender and I have responsibility for the nursing sheep and cattle. If they are driven hard for even one day, they will die… Please go ahead of me… I will lead my group slowly, following the pace of the work ahead of me, and the pace of the children. I will eventually come to you, my lord, in Seir.”
As the great commentator Rashi explains, that Jacob was referring to the end of times, about which the prophet Ovadiah propehsizes:
He told him of a longer journey… So when will he go? In the days of the Messiah, as it is said (Obadiah 1:21): “And saviors shall ascend Mt. Zion to judge the mountain of Esau.”
Jacob is telling Esau and all of us that there is much work to be done in resolving the inherent tension between the material and the spiritual. And this work must be done with complete focus. Jacob rejects even Esau’s offer to help by putting “some of my people at your disposal,” even that poses too great of a risk.
“Just let me remain on friendly terms with you,” Jacob tells Esau.
Similarly, the Alter Rebbe sensed that Jacob (the Jewish people) were not yet ready to accept the offer of freedom coming from the French modern face of Esau.
That was then.
But with time things began to change.
History is a process – the process of refining the material world and slowly acclimating it to its inner soul. As the river of time flowed forward, each generation carried the baton of its leg of the great marathon of history – each progressive generation building upon its predecessor, slowly refining the mundane world.
Today, after 3571 years of work from the time of Jacob and Esau, the accumulative energy of countless generations has so refined the world that it is ready for reconciliation. Jacob can finally fulfill his promise to Esau, “I will eventually come to you,” and the world can be united under one G-d, with a complete fusion of matter and spirit and each nation serving in its own unique manner (see The Big Confrontation – Jacob & Esau Meet).
Similarly, with the Alter Rebbe’s opposition to France. At the onset of emancipation, when the people — the “children” — were too tender, the leader’s responsibility is to ensure that that they be able and mature enough to engage with a new world.
But today, 200 years later, as France and the West became more refined and we have achieved a deeper state of maturity, the Rebbe made it clear (in a talk delivered at the end of 1991), that we now have the ability and opportunity to integrate both freedoms: material and spiritual.
The Alter Rebbe paid a heavy price for his war and opposition to France and Napoleon. Ostensibly, the French advance is what led to his untimely passing. Yet, in the big scheme of things the Alter Rebbe left us armed with unprecedented resources: the teachings of Chassidus. Chassidus, contemporary Jewish mysticism, renders and channels this ancient wisdom into an accessible blueprint for life that teaches us how to integrate our material lives with a higher, spiritual purpose.
Until the Alter Rebbe, cosmic secrets were in the exclusive domain of sacred few Tzaddikim. The Alter Rebbe’s liberation on Yud Tes (19) Kislev was a Divine signal and declaration that a new phase in history had arrived – the time had come to empower the masses with the ability to transform their material lives and the physical world into a home for the sublime.
This was always the purpose of existence, but in earlier generations global transformation would have not have been possible without overt Divine intervention. In natural terms, it did not seem possible that human efforts could achieve worldwide change. Yud Tes Kislev opened up a new channel – which would lead in subsequent years to the Industrial revolution, the emergence of democracy, the atomic and nuclear age, the information revolution – enormous changes that continue to grow at an accelerated pace.
Armed with these tools, and with the refinment and maturity that came with time, today we can harness our prosperity and comforts to advance a spiritual revolution. Yet, the challenge still remains not to take our freedoms for granted. Our greatest enemy today is within: our enemy is complacency – the one borne out of prosperity. When we don’t have to fight for our ideals, they tend to stagnate.
As time passed, emancipation was finally achieved to the point that today we are virtually free of any institutionalized oppression. And now, two centuries since the French Revolution and Napoleon’s defeat, we can now indeed engage, benefit from — and transform — the freedoms of modern society and thrive as Jews.
And thrive we did. France has, in the last few decades, proudly experienced a unparalleled renaissance of Jewish traditional life.
Yet, the tenuous relationship remains. And now comes the latest Muslim insurgence into France and Europe, with the most recent attacks against French Jews and French citizens. What are we to make of all this? And what happens in France, history shows, affects the world. France clearly plays a central role and reflects the overall European Western world.
So listen to this next fascinating piece of the puzzle:
In the very same verses where Ovadiah foresees Jacob returning to meet Esau, (and saviors shall ascend Mt. Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, fulfilling Jacob’s words I will eventually come to you),Ovadiah describes how .the Jews exiled in “Tzorfas” (France) will, at the end of days, prevail over their enemies and the ones that remained silent in face of their suffering, and how they will return to Zion!
This is the one and only time France is mentioned in the Torah.
This adds an entirely new dimension in our appreciation of the events in 1812 and today: The Alter Rebbe was certainly aware of this prophecy declaring Jacob’s return to Esau. But he also knew that this vision was meant to happen once the “children” had matured. Jacob in his time, and the Jewish people in the Alter Rebbe’s time, were not yet ready to engage with France and Seir. France was still the enemy that needed to be avoided and defeated.
The Alter Rebbe, however, also knew, that the time was coming — and indeed, today the time has come — when we can transform France, which epitomized the self-worship of man (as reflected so aptly in the French Enlightenment), into a Divine home.
But the story is not over. France (Esau) is still struggling with its destiny and relationship with Jacob (Jews), as demonstrated in the latest tragic events.
Yet this time, the attackers are Muslims.
So now, for the final piece of this emerging portrait, let us turn to the Zohar at the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, whose theme is the Egyptian persecution of the Israelites. The Zohar (II 32a) writes that at the end of days, the children of Ishmael will wage wars on Esau (the Western world). Edom (Esau) will respond and battle with them. Ultimately G-d will intervene and the Jewish people will rise.
The plot thus thickens. Though we have matured to the point that we can now take on and transform France (Esau), after first needing to be insulated (in the time of the Alter Rebbe), the ride is not easy. We still need to contend with Esau and his many transmutations and incarnations.
Including, the one in which he weds the daughter of Ishmael (Genesis 28:3), with its own major drama (see The Plot Thickens), resulting in a new series of conflicts that includes not just battles with Jews but also battles between Ishmael and Esau (as reflected in the Muslim attack on French citizens). Because, as Esau’s infamous wedding attests, Esau and Ishmael had their own share of differences, besides their commonalities. Both their mutuality and their conflicts would affect their future progeny and the wars they would wage with and against each other, as explained by the Abarbanel (Mayonei Yeshua (intro to Daniel), 2:3).
You see, Esau (France) has two faces: One as son of Abraham and brother to Jacob; the second, as warrior and arch-enemy to Jacob. The former is perhaps how Esau has evolved into the American Revolution, which also brought freedom to the world, but as opposed to the G-dless French Revolution, the American one was built on “In God We Trust,” the inalienable rights endowed equally to all people by their One Creator (see Two Faces of Esau).
Though we can indeed engage with France, the battle is not over until France makes its choice which face it will embrace.
The final frontier is clearly upon us. And France stands at the center of events — as it does in Ovadiah’s vision, and as it has played itself out in its long history, leading to our present day. The challenge is both with Esau and Ishmael, as the Zohar tells us.
We are far ahead of how things were in 1812 and certainly how they were 3371 years ago, but we still have a few steps to make. We stand at the threshold of returning to Zion from France and the rest of the world. Yet, we are faced with finishing the job of refining Esau and Ishmael.
History is a continuum. Peace in our lifetime will only be possible if we make peace with the rifts of our past. Today, we are confronted with forces that have been unleashed thousands of years ago.
Events are sometimes separated by 200 or 3000 years. But when you connect the dots, a bigger picture emerges that helps explain the world altering changes that we have experienced in the last two centuries.
And perhaps, it can help us understand what lies ahead.
Studying all these texts and reviewing the historical roots of today’s challenges provides us with that birds’ eye view, uncovering for us the hidden choreography behind today’s events.
These inside “secrets” provide perspective to current events in France — and the world — illuminating for us: why is Paris burning? Why is France, of all places, at the forefront of today’s upheavals?
And above all: After a long history of tension with its Jewish citizens, which of the two options will France — and Europe — choose: To make its peace with G-d and the Jews or to capitulate to the forces of Ishmael? The end, as Ovadiah assures us, will be victory. The only question is this: how will we get there and who will be on board?
For an elaborate discussion on this topic, please go here to view Rabbi Jacobson’s latest class.
Image by OnickzArtworks via Thinkstock.