Posted tagged ‘Ishmael’

Family Feud

September 18, 2012

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.

Our Cousin at the Foot of the Mountain

September 11, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning.

Every year, on Rosh Hashanah morning, I turn to the Torah portion, the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, as a source of inspiration for my sermon. This year will be no different. However, before I enter into my remarks, I must tell you that the sermon you are about to hear is not the sermon I originally intended to share with you. That particular sermon will have to wait until next Rosh Hashanah.

In some ways, that is unfortunate because, though its text has not yet been committed to paper (or whatever you commit texts to when you type them into your computer), it was, is, and will be a very nice sermon; one of those thought provoking feel good sermons that people so much like to hear these days. But as I said, it will have to wait.

You may wonder why I felt the need to set that sermon aside. That is a fair enough question. The answer is that there are times when the world takes over and as a result the sermons that clergy plan to deliver are not the ones they wind up delivering. Rather, they find themselves needing to deliver the sermons that the world demands of them. Unfortunately, this is such a time.

With that being said, let me turn to our Torah portion.

Usually, when rabbis discuss this Torah portion, they almost always center their reflections upon Abraham and Isaac, and all that transpired between them in this powerful account. However, when we consider the totality of the story, we need to recognize that Abraham and Isaac were not the only characters present. There were others. The Hebrew text refers to these others as Abraham’s “na’arav” or “sh’nei na’a’rav,” which most translations, including the one in our prayer book, renders as “servants” or “two servants.” However, the typical Hebrew term for servant is not “na’ar” but “eved.” “Na’ar” usually means “youth.” Recognizing this irregularity in the text, the rabbis of the Midrash asked, “Who were these two special youths who accompanied Abraham and Isaac on their journey?” They generally agree upon the answer. One of them was Abraham’s servant, Eliezer; the person who, later in the text, Abraham would send to Aram Naharayim, the town in which Abraham’s brother, Nahor, lived, in order to acquire a bride for Isaac. The other was none other than Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son, the son of the maid servant Hagar, Isaac’s half brother.

The presence of Ishmael in this seminal story of our people is highly significant. For even here, in the midst of a foundation story of the Jewish people – a story of one of the truly make-or-break moments in the history of our people and our faith; for if Abraham had carried through with his intended sacrifice, then this story would have marked the end of the Jewish people and of Judaism – even here we sense the presence of Ishmael. And who is Ishmael? As Isaac’s half brother, he is our uncle. But he is more than that. For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Isaac, the followers of Islam trace theirs back to Ishmael. With that in mind, we must never forget that the Muslims are our cousins. They are part of our family, and as such, they have been present with us throughout our history, even from our very beginnings. For even in this story, while Isaac the Jew is on top of Mount Moriah – what would become the Temple Mount – with Father Abraham, Ishmael the Muslim is standing at the foot of the mountain, awaiting the outcome. He accompanied us on our journey there, and he will accompany us on our journey back to Beer Sheva.

So the Muslims are our cousins; they are our family. In the light of contemporary history, that is a difficult concept for many to grasp. For we have spent the last 70 years or so contending with them. So much blood has been shed. Jewish blood by Arabs. Arab blood by Jews. Still they are our cousins. How can we reconcile the two? Well, as many of us know, sometimes the most strident conflicts occur within families. Family feuds can be the most bitter and devastating of controversies. Yet even so, in the end, family is family. And while within a family we can engage in the most vicious warfare imaginable, still there is something almost instinctive within us which demands that we set aside our differences and stand by our family members when others endanger them.

I remember an incident from my childhood which testifies to this phenomenon. My sister, of blessed memory, was six years older than I. As children we always fought, and she would never pass up even the slightest opportunity to beat me up. However, one day, standing at the school bus stop, one of the older boys started beating me up. Immediately, she stepped in and started beating him up. “Wait a minute!” he protested. “Why are you hitting me? After all, you beat up Henry all the time.” To this she replied, “He’s my brother, so I can beat him up, but don’t you dare lay a hand upon him!”

So it is, or should be, within the family of Abraham. It is one thing for us to contend with our cousins, the Muslims. It is quite another to stand silently by while others persecute and abuse them. And sad to say, that is exactly what is happening today – not in some far off land but rather here, on our very shores.

What I am referring to is the controversy which has whirled around the proposal to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero, in New York. The debate over this proposed mosque has stirred up some of the ugliest aspects of American culture today. As a result, we have witnessed a burgeoning of virulent hatred and prejudice. As a result, we Jews, as people of conscience, nevertheless cousins to the Muslims, have been handed the challenge of whether we will join in this hate fest, or silently stand by, and by our silence give tacit approval to it, or stand up and stand with our cousins, even though our dispute with them over the future of the Middle East continues to be bitter and bloody.

Personally, I have struggled with this issue. When the question of the mosque first arose, I have to admit that I myself wondered, “Why do they have to build it there? Isn’t that more than a bit insensitive considering the fact that the tragedy of September 11th was perpetrated by Muslims who claimed to be acting in the name of their faith?” I also have to admit that I wondered about where the funds were coming from. It would be one thing if they were being raised from among the American Muslim community, but something else if they were coming out of the Arab world. Yet even as I entertained these questions, my main concern still centered on the principle of freedom of religion. Still, this is America and in this country people of all faiths are supposed to be free to worship according to their faiths wherever they choose to worship; even if they are Muslims who wish to worship at or near Ground Zero.

As I was grappling with my mixed feelings over this issue, one day at lunch I was approached by Rev. Ron Quay of Churches United, who wanted us to get together to discuss whether or not the Quad Cities faith community ought to take a stand in support of the mosque.

When we did hold our meeting, we ultimately decided not to act immediately but rather to wait and see. What were we waiting for? First of all, we feared that by jumping into this controversy, we would actually be causing more harm than good. At that time, all the negativity was centered on the mosque in New York. There had been no expressions of anti-Muslim hostility here in the Quad Cities. So we feared that if we spoke out, we would actually provoke such hostility. We did not want to give this hostility more legs, especially more local legs than it already had. Secondly, we felt that it would be inappropriate for us to step forward without a request to do so coming from our local Muslim community. If they wanted our help and our support, all they needed to do was ask for it. For us to impose it upon them might indeed do them more harm than good.

But as fate would have it, the anger and the prejudice surrounding the proposed New York mosque would not remain in New York. Like the virulent social cancer hate is, it began to metastasize, spreading its toxins across our country. Feeding off the New York controversy, the purveyors of Islamophobia starting peddling their poisonous pellets of prejudice wherever they could.

The New York Times published a feature article about an evangelical pastor in Florida who was organizing a public book burning of the Koran scheduled for September 11th. I know that there are those who are very unhappy with me when I make Holocaust analogies, but how could I, as a Jew, not shiver at the parallel between this man’s intentions and the Nazis’ burning of Jewish sacred books and books by Jewish authors?

In the Washington Post, I read about how the Islamic community of Mufreesboro, Tennessee – a community which lived in peace and harmony with its neighbors for over thirty years – had met with strong opposition when they proposed building their own mosque in their own town. Nor was this opposition made up exclusively of those who spoke out at county board meetings. It also included hundreds who gathered for a large noisy protest rally in the town square and political candidates who made their opposition to this mosque a center piece of their campaigns. Painfully, an article published in the Post one week later, reported that among those who opposed this mosque there were those who had escalated their protests to include acts of violence such as an act of arson at the construction site, along with reports of gunfire there as well.

Rev. Quay and I conferred. We had worried about giving Islamophobia legs. Well, as report after report of anti-Islamic hatred came in, it was becoming abundantly obviously that this hatred was growing legs of its own. It was likewise becoming obvious that sooner or later – sooner rather than later – we would have to take a stand in opposition to it. For as this issue has evolved, it is no longer an issue of whether or not the site of the New York mosque is appropriate. It has become crystal clear that the fundamental issue here is one of protecting religious freedom; one of taking a strong stand against prejudice and bigotry.

Still, on a local level, there were some pieces that were missing for us. First of all, there was the fact that this hatred of Muslims had yet to touch our community. And of course there was the fact that our local Islamic community had yet to express a desire for any public action in this regard.

Well, that too, was soon to end. It ended for me one morning while on the treadmill during a respiratory therapy session. The TV was on in the therapy room, as we patients were watching the Today Show on KWQC as we exercised. And then there it was on the screen before us, being broadcast by our local TV station. It was the most horrible of commercials. I suspect that at least some of you have seen it. It started off with the claim that whenever the Muslims conquered a place, they celebrated their victory by building there a mosque. Images of Jerusalem, Spain, and now Ground Zero. It equated the building of a mosque at Ground Zero with the building of a Japanese temple at Pearl Harbor. It then went on to castigate Congressman Bruce Braley for supporting the building of this mosque and it encouraged our local citizens to call Congressman Braley to express their opposition and discontent. Now this Islamophobia had local legs. This hatred had come to roost in the Quad Cities. The picture was complete. Our community would not be spared the taint of this hatred. The strident voices who strive to provoke fear in the hearts of the American people by invoking that fearful term, “jihad” were now here recruiting our friends and neighbors to join them in their own holy war against anyone who follows the faith of Mohammed.

So Rev. Quay and I contacted the local Islamic community to let them know that if they wanted to take public action in response to such prejudice, we were willing to stand by them and with them, and we would encourage the other members of the Quad Cities faith community to do so as well.

They have taken us up on our offer. So, on Saturday evening, September 11th, starting at 5:00 p.m., the Moline Mosque will be hosting an interfaith gathering; a Day of Unity and Healing. The program will only last an hour but if people of conscience – and I hope that includes everyone in this room and everyone in our Jewish community – if people of conscience come out and support it, the impact of such a gathering on the Quad Cities will have enduring value. It will affirm the living essence of those important words which President George Washington wrote back in 1790 to Moses Seixas, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Our Muslim cousins residing here in the Quad Cities are good citizens. We most certainly disagree with them strongly about the situation in the Middle East, but still, they are good citizens; as good as we are. We, a people who have suffered centuries of persecution, only to find a haven here in a free America, may very well be the best equipped in our land to appreciate their current situation; to appreciate what it is like to be the target of hatred. If we do not stand up for them now, then we demean the memories of all those Jews of generations past who fell victim to the power of bigotry.

I not only invite you to stand with me on the evening of September 11th, in the mosque in Moline. I implore you. It is the debt we owe to our forebears. It is the debt we owe to our children. It is also a family thing. They are our cousins and they need our support. As Ishmael stood by Isaac. So must we now stand by them.