Torah Reflections: November 13 – November 19, 2011

Parashah (portion) Chayei Sarah – The Legacy of Isaac and Ishmael
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Foreword: Since I will be in Israel for the next couple of weeks and won’t be able to write my weekly Torah Reflections, I thought you would have enough time to read a slightly longer piece this time. This was originally an article I wrote for the Seattle Jewish Transcript newspaper which you can still find in its online version here.

A surprising turn of events happens in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. We read:

Abraham breathed his last and died in good ripe age, old and satisfied, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah… [Gen. 25:8-9]

What are Isaac and Ishmael doing here together? This is the first we hear of them since each of their traumatic experiences at the hand of their father. Some seventy-three years earlier–as far as Ishmael is concerned–Abraham attempted to kill him by casting him and his mother out to die in the wilderness. He and his father had remained estranged ever since. The same holds true for Isaac after the Akedah, his binding and near sacrifice. Despite the fact that an angel intervenedin the last momentto stay Abraham’s hand, Isaac saw that his father was ready and willing to sacrifice him. Arguably, from Isaac’s perspective the angelic intervention didn’t make a difference. Even though the blade of the sacrificial knife never touches him, it may as well have, as their father-son relationship was severed for good. Isaac does not come down from Mount Moriah with Abraham; in fact, there is no record of the two having contact ever again.

For Isaac and Ishmael to be able to bury their father together suggests that they each had made peace with their past, and were able to forgive what Abraham had done. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting what has happened or denying it ever took place; but rather that we are no longer bound by our past, able to cast off our anger, resentment and upset vis-à-vis those who have hurt us; and that our pain and suffering no longer define us. In that space, we are able to let go of the stories we have created about these events and free ourselves from their burden on our lives. This possibility of forgiveness is the model of what Isaac and Ishmael’s offering could represent. The two half-brothers, wounded by the same source, pitted against each other by the circumstances of their lives, show here a willingness to rise above their personal stories and support one another even as they literally lay to rest the person who represents the source of their pain. Can we, Jews and Muslims alike–inheritors of Isaac and Ishmael’s legacy–learn from their example?

Just days before Rosh HaShanah, I tuned in to watch Abbas and Netanyahu address the United Nations. As Abbas spoke I was hopeful that he would extend an olive branch toward Israel; that he would at least hint at recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish State alongside a future Palestinian State. He did not. Instead, he re-told the old party-line narrative accusing Israel of being led by a brutal apartheid regime whose goal is to oppress the Palestinians and rob them of their homeland.

Perhaps Netanyahu would rise above the rhetoric of the status quo? I hoped that he would take the high road and commit to ordering a freeze of all West Bank settlements, dismantle illegal ones, and put a halt to any construction in East Jerusalem as a gesture of good will and a serious commitment to peace. But he did not. He, too, redrew the same old caricature that depicts all Palestinians as unrepentant terrorists hell-bent on the total destruction of Israel.

Each side is deeply stuck, bound to a path of destruction in the self-righteous name of their own exclusive narrative. The cost to both people is impossibly high. To be sure, such rhetoric will lead not only to other-destruction, but just as surely to self-destruction; as to remain enmeshed in these intransigent stories perpetuates the cycle of misery and collective nightmare, endless cycle of violence and deaths that they and we co-create.

One of my favorite philosophers, Ken Wilber, asserts: “As a general rule, no one is smart enough to be wrong 100% of the time.” Can we, then, leave room for the other to be wrong only 99% of the time? Because in this 1% lies a world of possibilities. By allowing that 1% we open a door to hearing a different perspective; we start with the assumption that our truth is not absolute truth but, rather, that there exist many relative truths; that there is no given reality but only perspectives on that reality. By moving out of our entrenched positions we not only become better able to see or hear the other’s position, but also better able to see our own self and our own stories objectively.

Perhaps it is time–as Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham–for us, for Israelis and Palestinians, to reframe our stories about the past and stop pretending that these old narratives must define our future. This is not to deny the violence, deaths, and deep wounds that each side has inflicted upon the other in the many decades of this conflict. No, what happened happened. But rather to let go of the stories that each side has created about it. A real healing process has the possibility of success when neither side expects the other to recognize the totality of its story any longer, but when each is able to shift its perspective slightly and acknowledge the truth of just one aspect, a sliver–that 1% of the other’s narrative. Indeed, this is not only the work of a country’s leaders; it must begin with each of us: what are the beliefs, the positions we are wedded to in our own lives? What are the stories we are bound to that are reflected by the resentments, upsets, and anger we experience when these stories are challenged? What is it we know ourselves to be so “right” about that we are unable to hear a different point of view? We, too, are to become aware of our entrenched attachment to our stories, to question our assumptions, and gently open ourselves to hear different perspectives. Isaac and Ishmael were able to forgive. They came to recognize that the historical circumstances of their lives did not have to determine their future. For the democratic values that Israel holds dear, and all peoples in the Middle East, I pray that we, too, will awaken to this recognition.

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About Rabbi Olivier

Olivier BenHaim is the rabbi for Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue. Olivier is also a husband and Amalya and Lior's papa. He likes sunny days in Seattle, hiking, cuddling with his kids, having friends over for dinner and crunchy chocolate chip cookies.

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