10/31/15 Sermon – What Can We Do About the Children of Abraham?

Dear Friends,

This morning’s Torah portion, especially Chapter 21 of Genesis, focuses on the strife in the family of Abraham. What can we do about the children of Abraham? As we know from what we read last week, Abraham has an older son, Ishmael, whom he fathered with Hagar, his wife Sarah’s Egyptian slave. Now, some 14 years later, Sarah has given birth, miraculously at age 90, to a son, Isaac. Sarah sees that Isaac is threatened, apparently, by some kind of “playing” in which Ishmael is participating. The text is not specific about what was going on that made Sarah so alarmed, but it was enough have her demand that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. In some ways, the rift between the sons of Abraham can be traced to that moment, if we are to believe the Torah’s account literally.

I myself do not see the Torah as any kind of factual history of our people, but there are certainly significant spiritual history lessons found here. It is also interesting to note how differently Judaism, Christianity, and Islam look at the next chapter, Chapter 22, which we call Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac), which several Christian denominations refer to as the Sacrifice of Isaac (thus prefiguring the later sacrificed Savior), and which the Qur’an rewrites, in Sura 37, verses 99 through 109, as a story of a very willing near sacrifice of Ishmael, not Isaac.

While Islam as a religion might not be the main driver of conflict in the Middle East, no one could cogently argue that it isn’t a component, and since Islam traces its lineage through Ishmael, the roots of some aspects of the conflict are found here. Does that mean, however, that there can be no possible resolution, given how ancient the rivalry is? I cannot allow myself to believe that the ongoing horror in Israel and spread around the world via terrorists who purportedly fight in the name of Allah is what we will always know. Peace must be possible, and although it doesn’t appear to be probable in the near future, we must nevertheless struggle to bring it about.

The question, of course, is how. I have no delusion that because the Arabs and the Jews are called the children of Abraham that we are somehow brothers – history has repeatedly emphasized that we are not. While our peoples might share a common ancestor, the often tragic history of our past makes the continuous struggle far more than an overinflated case of sibling rivalry. Peace will only come when the best interests of both sides are served through the careful construction of lasting truces built upon honest human relationships.

Both sides must learn to choose diplomacy over violence, to once again treasure human life, and to work selflessly for the betterment of both peoples. The Arabs must stop indoctrinating their children with hatred of the Jews; those Arab spokesmen who claim that it is not happening are simply lying. The Israelis, on their part, and as painful as it will be, must learn to escape the cynicism, fear, and hatred that they have amassed since well before the birth of the state. The so-called “news” media must stop serving themselves through relentless reporting of violence and fear to spark greater ratings and thus attract bigger advertisers – a return to objective, nonpartisan journalism would lead both sides to better understand the underlying truths and unresolved issues. BDS (the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, which is clearly aimed at destroying the Israeli economy) and anti-Zionist rallies on campuses are thinly veiled anti-Semitic actions; they must be denounced and opposed so that they can stop fanning the flames. The following quote from yesterday’s Tablet magazine makes it clear: “Notably, the vast majority of the leadership of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel opposes the Jewish state’s right to exist. As BDS leader Omar Barghouti famously put it, Israel “was Palestine, and there is no reason why it should not be renamed Palestine.” Ahmed Moor, another BDS leading light and editor of After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine, has been even more blunt: “‪BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.” Likewise, California State University professor ‪As’ad Abu Khalil has similarly stated, “Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the State of Israel.””

There is so much outright lying about Israel, for instance calling Israel an apartheid state, which it clearly is not; the truth becomes ever harder to find. But there is also lying about the Arabs that is damaging all chances for peace – the blanket labeling of all Muslims as terrorists is a roadblock. Some Israelis, especially many West Bank settlers who are attacking Arab farmers and keeping them from harvesting their olives, for instance, are worsening prospects for peace. When Prime Minister Netanyahu this week claimed that the Final Solution, the mass slaughter of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis during World War II, was largely the idea of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an ally of Hitler, Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel herself had to speak up and assert that it was Nazi Germany’s fault alone. Netanyahu certainly did nothing to improve the climate for peace-making with that assertion.

And yet, there are individuals who are actively working toward peace, despite great danger to their own lives and to their standing in their respective communities. Retreating into defensiveness, vilification of the other side, and constant recrimination cannot be the way forward – the only possible growth toward peace will come from nurturing the small, hopeful, grass-roots efforts underway that are striving desperately for it.

We will read in Genesis 35 that Isaac and Ishmael finally reunited to bury their father Abraham. May we all find our way to becoming a greater part of the solution, whenever it will come, G-d willing before death comes to the children of Abraham.

Shabbat Shalom.

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