Every year on Rosh Hashanah morning I base my sermon on the text of the Torah portion; the story of the Binding of Isaac. Every year, I attempt to look at the story from a different angle and draw a different lesson from this remarkable account.
Two years ago, I focused my remarks not on Abraham and Isaac but rather on the “na’arav,” the servants or youths who accompanied them to Mount Moriah. At that time I pointed out that the rabbis who wrote the commentaries and the Midrash were in general agreement that these two special young people who had the privilege of accompanying Abraham and Isaac were none other than Eliezer – the servant Abraham ultimately would send to acquire a wife for Isaac – and Ishmael – Isaac’s half-brother; Abraham’s older son from Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid, Hagar.
As I did two years ago, I wish to turn our attention to Ishmael, for Ishmael is a unique and very important character in the story of our people, not only then in our early days, but today as well. For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Abraham through Isaac, the Arab world traces it lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael. Arabs and Jews, we are family. We are all the children of Abraham. While we Jews have followed the path of Isaac, the Arabs have followed the path of Ishmael.
As we all know, in this world there are families and then there are families. There are families in which their members are bound one to the other by indestructible bonds. Then there are families in which their members each go their own separate ways, acknowledging their connections, one to the other, but not really feeling those connections in their hearts. And then there are families in which their members are steeped in bitterness and anger one toward the other because of old wrongs, both real and imagined; families at war with themselves.
Sad to say, our family is just that; a family at war with itself. Arabs and Jews, we find ourselves caught in the midst of a family feud, the roots of which are thousands of year old. The roots of which go back all the way to the days of Isaac and Ishmael.
In the very same Torah portion in which we find the text of the Binding of Isaac, we find another account as well; an important text in understanding the roots of our family feud. According to this text, Sarah saw Ishmael doing something, and it distressed her greatly. Indeed, she was so distressed that she went straight to Abraham and insisted that he send Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, away and do so immediately. And so he did.
One of the questions the rabbis ask is, “What is it that Sarah saw?” The Torah text simply states that she saw Ishmael “metzachek,” which in modern Hebrew simply means “playing.” As you can imagine, it is the meaning of that term, “Metzachek” over which the rabbis have struggled throughout the ensuing years. We do not have to look very far to get a taste of their debates. We only have to look to the translation or translations of the Torah most popularly accepted by the English speaking Jewish world; those published by the Jewish Publication Society. Many synagogues, mine included, provide copies of the Torah translation for the worshipers to refer to while the Torah is being read. Those translations more often than not are the most recent one published by the Jewish Publication Society. It is the most recent but it is not the first. Rather it is the third. The translation in those books was first published in 1962. Prior to that, the Jewish Publication Society published two other translations; one in 1884 and the other in 1917. In the 1884 translation, “metzachek” was translated as “mocking” while in 1917 it was translated as “making sport.” It was not until 1962 that it was translated as “playing.”
Why is the translation of “metzachek” so important? Because it is the key to understanding why it was that Sarah insisted that Abraham tear his family apart and create the rift which is the foundation of the family feud which we experience to this day between Arabs and Jews. The 1884 translation reflected the interpretation that Sarah witnessed Ishmael “mocking” Isaac while the 1917 reflected the interpretation that Ishmael was making fun of Isaac. While the 1962 translation does use the word “playing” still in the Midrash and commentaries that support the use of that interpretation, there is found the opinion that while Ishmael may have been befriending Isaac through play, he was also using his friendship to exert an undo influence over him. Whichever way the rabbis fell in the debates over the meaning of that one word, where they all came together was that whatever Sarah saw, in it she saw that Ishmael posed some significant threat to Isaac’s well being, and therefore needed to be expelled from the camp; ousted from the family circle.
Ishmael’s supposed threat, along with Sarah’s & Abraham’s very painful rejection, sowed the seeds for the animosity we experience today between Arabs and Jews. For 4,000 years we have each looked at the other, with anger and with hatred, as the enemy; as the one who has done us harm in the past and will do us harm in the future. This has become so ingrained in us that even if we seriously looked back to the roots of this hostility, seeking to understand its genesis, still there are so many years of ill will that it seems near impossible to repair it. Here in America we look to the Hatfields and the McCoys as a classic example of a family feud, but when compared to the Arabs and the Jews, they were mere novices.
Now reason dictates that we should be able set aside our differences and seek a peaceful resolution to our conflict. However, reason plays a very small role in what goes on in the Middle East. Indeed, much of the hatred which exists is pure mindless hatred. It is hatred based upon generations of hatred. While we American Jews would like to believe that Israel is more open to seeking reasonable solutions with its neighbors, still there are many in Israel who hate the Arabs as virulently and as blindly as the Arabs hate us. Literally a month ago, on August 16th, there was a despicable incident in Zion Square in Jerusalem, in which a mob of Jewish teenagers beat a 17 year old Palestinian boy to within an inch of his life while hundreds of Israeli merely looked on, doing nothing to intervene. While 8 teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 19, have been arrested for this attack, one of them, a 14 year old whose name has been withheld because he is a minor, and who is considered to be the one who delivered the critical blow to the victim, shortly after his arrest, said to reporters, “For my part, he can die; he’s an Arab.”
In addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict, we Jews have always been quick to point an accusing finger at all those Arab imams who week after week preach bloody hatred of Jews from their pulpits, and we have been completely justified in doing so. However, in the aftermath of the beating of this Palestinian boy in Jerusalem, our attention has been turned in another direction as well. It has been turned toward rabbis who likewise preach hate. Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of Reform Judaism’s Israel Religious Action Center, has challenged the Israeli government to take criminal action against some 50 state-employed Israeli rabbis, not the least of whom is none other than Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of S’fat (Safed), who regularly preach anti-Arab hatred from their pulpits, in blatant disregard for Israeli law which clearly states that racist incitement is a criminal offense. But what else can you call it when these rabbis deliver messages such as “don’t rent or sell apartments to Arabs” or “All Arabs have a violent nature”? So blind hatred is not exclusively the purview of the Arabs. The Jews have enough of it to go around as well.
All that being said, in the Jewish world, and in Israel in particular, we do hear more voices of moderation. There is more hand-wringing and soul searching after events such as what happened in Zion Square than when the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. For there are those who recognize that this cycle of violence, this cycle of anger, this cycle of hatred has to be broken. If only there were more in the Arab world that shared such a recognition and were courageous enough to be outspoken about it. But even if there are, the anger and the hatred is so deep-seated in the Arab world that to so speak out is to literally put one’s life and the lives of one’s family members at risk.
So more often than not, Israel finds itself with no choice but to act defensively in the face of unmitigated hatred. Their desire for peace does not, nor should it, require them to commit any act of national suicide.
Such is the situation in which Israel finds itself today when it comes to Iran. While Israel would prefer peace; would prefer to put an end to this family feud, the political leadership of Iran will have none of it. For years now, the Ayatollah leadership of Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejab have spewed upon the world their messages of antisemitism and hatred of Israel. Time and again, they have not threatened but promised to wipe Israel off the map; to utterly destroy what they call “the Zionist entity.” True to a history of deep seated prejudice, you never hear them explain why they feel this way. They just do. Hatred of Jews – hatred of Israel – is simply a given in their lives. When it comes to Israel, they see no alternative but to seek out its destruction, for they are lost in the family feud; caught up in the cycle of hate.
It has been to this end that the Iranian government has avidly pursued the development of nuclear weapons and they have made it abundantly clear that they have one goal in mind; to use those weapons in their quest to wipe Israel off the map. This goal they have never kept secret. Quite the contrary. In fact, just last month a member of the Iranian Parliament announced, “This nuclear weapon is meant to create a balance of terror with Israel, to finish off the Zionist enterprise.” Echoing those same sentiments, President Ahmadinejad said, “Anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.”
As we all know, the Iranians are not the first to proclaim as their goal the desire to wipe out the Jews. There is a laundry list of others who have preceded them: the Crusaders, the Cossacks, the Nazis. And each of them tried their best to accomplish their goal. So for us Jews, when there are those who threaten to destroy us, we have good cause to take their threats seriously. How much the more so should Israel take Iran’s threats seriously, taking into consideration that they are born out of our 4,000 year old family feud!
A few weeks ago, I found myself in Washington, D.C., attending a conference of 120 rabbis from across the spectrum of Jewish religious life, sponsored by AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. As you can imagine, the main topic for consideration was the immediate tangible threat which Iran poses to the continued existence of the State of Israel. That day we heard from many speakers, both from the left and from the right – speakers of note such as William Cristol and Dennis Ross, not to mention Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. What was remarkable was that despite their varying political orientations, with nuanced differences, they arrived at the same conclusions. And their bottom line was that unless the Iranian leadership can be convinced to break out of this lockstep mentality of hatred for Israel – unless they can be convinced to break out of the family feud mind set – there will be a war and it will be soon, perhaps even before our November elections. For no matter what the United States chooses to do, Israel will never and can never permit Iran to take its nuclear development to a point beyond which Israel will no longer be able to take actions to stop them. The frightening reality is that today in Israel, those who make plans are planning for several scenarios, all of which include the likelihood that no matter which way Israel turns, she will have to endure a significant number of civilian casualties. For if Israel strikes Iran, Iran will have to conduct a counter-strike. Yet if Israel doesn’t strike Iran, and Iran is permitted to continue to pursue its nuclear ambitions, the cost in Israeli casualties will be phenomenally higher. As the cycle of violence continues, both sides may find themselves drawing blood and bleeding as the result of a 4,000 year old family feud.
As hopeless as the whole matter seems, our meeting closed with an excellent presentation and a ray of hope brought to us by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. Wieseltier reminded us of a statement once made by David Ben Gurion. Back in the 30’s, when Ben Gurion was asked what the Jewish community in Palestine was going to do about the British White Paper, which eliminated Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time when European Jews desperately needed to flee from the Nazis, Ben Gurion responded: “We will fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler, and we will fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper.” What he was saying was that we Jews do not have the luxury to face one issue at a time. We have to face and juggle them all. In other words, as long as this family feud presents us with fundamental threats to our continued existence, we must confront those threats. However, even as we confront those threats – militarily, if necessary – we still must commit ourselves to make every effort to bring to an end this family feud and break through the walls of hatred, on both sides, which have been erected over 4 millennia.
May God help us find a way to transform age old anger into peace.
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