A Yom Kippur reading — with some unusual connotations.
Today’s State of Israel was named after a man who introduced an irregularity into the laws of succession. Today’s State of Israel has also introduced an irregularity into the laws of succession: implanting the Jewish homeland in a mainly Muslim Palestine.
The first “Israel” found a solution that saved his life and his cosmic calling, but it was hard to put into practice. It dislocated his hip – and left him limping for the rest of his life. Could this be why the second “Israel” has so far not made use of the solution adopted by the first one?
Both stories begin with an injustice. But in both stories there is something fair contained in the injustice. If there is to be a solution to the problem of Israel today, that fairness must become visible/palpable – as it clearly did in the story of the first Israel. It does become palpable when authenticity can be plainly felt. There is a resemblance with far-eastern martial arts: the authentic will prevail. That is how the first Israel won recognition in the end. In the case of today’s Israel the outcome is still open.
The central issue, at least in the case of the first Israel, is the essence of religion. How could it be anything else in so basic a Biblical narration? Typically, there are two sides to religion: authenticity and imitation, truth and ideology. Abraham’s intent was to follow truth alone. That commitment to follow what he perceived as true, always to remain authentic, led him to leave family and homeland. In their imitation of and identification with Abraham, his followers run a constant risk of losing their authenticity. And yet, the key to discerning truth from simulacrum is ever present in the example of Abraham and the patriarchs. The Lord promised Abraham that his offspring would in fact always find this key. The question now is how the second Israel (whose members don’t necessarily identify with the first) can recover that key.
Everybody knows the story of the first Israel. Some may have forgotten it, but the parallels in the development of both Israels are so striking, that even secularists and atheists are bound to be impressed by any serious comparison. Let me, then, retell the tale in its main features:
Isaak, the only son of Abraham and his wife Sarah, inherited God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the founding father of a great people, a people that would become a blessing for the world by following the voice of God, as Abraham had done. But even then a serious, life-threatening problem arose. – To resolve such severe existential challenges seems to be an essential part of the cosmic calling contained in God’s promise to Abraham.
Isaac had two sons. Esau was the firstborn, Jacob the second – even though only minutes apart. They were twins. A hand of the second child was grasping the heel of the first one when they emerged from their mother’s womb. That is why he was named “Jacob”, meaning “heel-holder”.
God’s promise to Abraham had to be passed on to the firstborn. Such was the law. But the elder did not show much interest in the matter. Once, when he returned home hungry from the hunt, he wanted some of the lentils Jacob had cooked. In exchange Jacob asked him for his birthright. And Esau sold it! His father did not know of this – and Esau himself may not have attached any importance to the event. To him it was quite clear who the heir would be!
One day, when their father was old and blind, he called his son Esau to pass on to him the blessing he had received from his father Abraham. In order to enhance the ceremony, he asked Esau to hunt for a nice piece of game and prepare a good meal for him, after which he would bless him.
So, Esau went hunting, elated by the prospect of receiving Abraham’s blessing. He did not know that his mother had overheard what Isaac had told him.
No sooner had Esau left than Rebecca called Jacob and told him that he must act at once. She was in no doubt as to who the proper heir for Abraham’s blessing must be. She asked Jacob to bring the best of the lambs. She would prepare it the way Isaac loved. Then Jacob would bring the dish to his father and ask for the blessing.
There was only one small difficulty. Esau was very hairy and Jacob had rather smooth skin. Since the father was practically blind he would certainly touch his son and thus notice the difference. But the mother had a solution. Jacob was to wear the skin of the freshly slaughtered animal. Then the father would not notice the difference when he touched his son.
That’s how it was done. Rebecca prepared the meal, Jacob brought it to his father and asked for the blessing.
Naturally, the father immediately noticed the difference in the voice. “The voice is that of Jacob”, he said, “come, let me touch you!” Jacob let the father touch him and the wool served its purpose. Isaac believed it was Esau. He duly ate and then transmitted the blessing of his father Abraham to Jacob.
The ceremony was long over when Esau at last got home to bring his offering to his father.
Now the father realized: he had blessed the wrong one! He was desperate. And Esau was even more desperate. He asked his father to pass the blessing also to him. But that special blessing the father could not pass on twice. He gave Esau his blessing – but not the one that contained the Lord’s promise to Abraham.
Rebecca knew what that meant. Once Isaac died, Esau would kill his brother. Jacob had to flee. She sent him to her brother Laban in Haran.
Over twenty years later, by which time he had twice married and had become a rich man, Jacob returned. In the end, he had no choice but to return to the land which God had granted to Abraham in order to take up his inheritance.
He hoped his brother’s fury would have died down and that Esau would receive him in peace. In order to appease him, he had prepared rich presents, an entire herd consisting of the best of his animals. But Esau had not forgotten. When he heard that his brother was coming he hired four hundred mercenaries. He wanted to make sure his brother was killed.
Jacob, of course, heard of this. It was quite clear that he would not survive the meeting with his brother – unless he come up with an adequate stratagem.
He sent everybody ahead and remained alone by the banks of the river Jabbok, meaning to cross in the morning. That night, it is said that “he fought with God”. And after that fight God gave him a new name, “Israel”, meaning “he who fought with God and prevailed.”
This is the moment the founders of the second “Israel” must have had in mind when they chose that name for their new State.
That night the struggle grew so intense that Jacob’s hip was dislocated and he was left with a limp for the rest of his life – apparently an illustration of the severity of what he had to undertake the next day, when he must confront his brother Esau. He knew that he would not survive that confrontation. But after that night, he approached his brother very differently from how he had previously intended. He prostrated himself before him seven times.
Esau was so deeply moved by this gesture of humility that he bent down to his brother and raised him to his feet. Flinging his arms around Jacob’s neck, he kissed him and burst into tears.
The mercenaries were forgotten. Esau was reconciled. And Jacob could hand over his rich offering. After that, Esau returned home and allowed his brother to settle in peace. There was enough room for the two of them.
The parallels between the tale we just heard and the story of modern Israel are astounding.
Today there are again two brothers: no few Palestinians trace their ancestry back to the Canaanites and to the Philistines who owned the land before the Jews took it from them after their exodus from Egypt. Later, the land came again to bear the name of the Philistines. Thus many of today’s Palestinians see themselves as the firstborn. They have no intention of sharing their land with a people who they see as unjust invaders, as colonists – a view not unlike Esau’s when faced with Jacob’s return.
But have not so many things happened since then?
Again and again, the Israelites lost their homeland. Again and again they managed to reestablish themselves.
History may vary from biblical narrations, but we are dealing with the self-concept of the peoples involved and with their authenticity and both are expressed very well in biblical history, often in an extraordinarily self-critical manner – as for instance in the story of Nebuchadnezzar conquering Jerusalem and destroying the Temple, because, according to the prophet Jeremiah, the Jewish defenders at that time were arrogant and they lacked authenticity.
Today, nobody seems to see a solution to the unending feud between the two peoples. – But precisely at the point where secular thinking is stymied, the essence of religion can show a way out.
Esau and Jacob were brothers. Jews and Muslims are brothers and sisters in Abraham too. Every single one of the Jewish prophets is a prophet of the Muslims too! Even if it may seem impossible for politicians and journalists, from a religious perspective reconciliation is attainable. It was the religious perspective of “the first Israel” that enabled the deadly enemies Esau and Jacob to reconcile!
Today’s Israel could follow the example of the man whose name it adopted, a man who received that name from God for the courageous – and authentic! – behavior he displayed when he went to meet his brother.
To take the first Israel as a model for today will, realistically, open up the way to true peace. If today’s Israel can make a gesture like that of the man it was named after, the entire world will witness the same change of heart, the same inner conversion as the first Israel, when he prostrated in humility before his brother. Israel today has the strength to act with similar courage, humility and generosity. In so doing, its people would show their respect for so many fellow human beings, fellow sufferers who still feel themselves, like Jews, to be victims of history, unjustly attacked, harassed and refused their rights as citizens in the land of their forefathers.
Of course, such a gesture cannot come easy – for the first Israel the birth of reconciliation could not have been harder. The struggle with the angel came close to crippling him! But such is the kind of self-conquest that is called for, an inner conversion with the potential to transform enmity into brotherhood, hatred into love. Such a self-conquest could even move the Muslim neighbors to welcome the Jewish State in their midst.
The country is big enough for both of them!
Naturally, an apology on the part of the British and the French would be highly appropriate. It was they who reneged on their promise, to which the Zionist Commission was party, to help set up a pan-Arabic State, dividing territory between the two colonial powers, and in so doing turned Arab rage and frustration against the Zionists. An apology from them could help Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbors see that the Zionists were, like themselves, victims of British and French colonial policy. To be able to see that could, perhaps for the first time, arouse fellow feeling, even compassion – and thus make for the sensitivity the gesture of reconciliation calls for, at long last uniting Israel in true peace with its Muslim brothers and sisters.