“You came at a poignant time in Israel’s history” a shopkeeper at Yad VaShem’s bookstore said yesterday. She was warmly greeting one of the Police Chiefs participating in our ADL Counterterrorism Mission. Headlines notwithstanding, it has been and remains a quiet week as Jerusalem prepares to greet Shabbat.
To appreciate Jerusalem’s sanctity is to know that her identity is determined less by political figures than by prophets. The prophetic passage that adorns the United Nations complex comes from Isaiah’s Jerusalem-rooted message. ““God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out this week that too often the nations of the world forget the words that immediately precede these: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
No matter how remote this realization may at times feel, its transcendent worthiness abides. Often what appears conspicuous in the present takes on new meaning in the future.
A biblical Joseph makes his way down to Egypt in this week’s portion of Torah. A series of events is set in motion that will culminate, hundreds of years later, with the Exodus and the birth of our Jewish People. How does Joseph get from the pit into which he is thrown by his hostile brothers down to Egypt? The Torah is ambiguous, telling us that both Ishmaelites and Midianites are responsible for conveying him there (Gen. 37:27-28). Why both groups?
Because both cohorts are descendants of Abraham’s two other unions with Hagar (Gen. 16:16) and Keturah (Gen. 25:2). We may have thought that it was only the line that runs through Sarah that matters. Perhaps we considered the other parts of Abraham’s family to be outsiders. But instead of dismissing them, the Torah reintroduces their progeny here, at this decisive moment of entering Egypt. This teaches us that destiny can be more complex. Fate can be more fungible. Ishmaelites and Midianites will help set in motion our most enduring and redemptive story, the Exodus, which has inspired redemptive movements throughout human history. It still does so today. And it will continue to do so tomorrow, amplified by Isaiah’s vision. What appears clear in the ‘here and now’ may not preclude the re-emergence of factors, ideas, and decedents of individuals which we thought were no longer part of the story.
May the Jerusalem’s prophetic voice – uttered by Isaiah 2,700 years ago – resound with realization now and forevermore.