Or, as the first peacemaking Jew?
Last week in Israel was filled with events remembering the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l. (This week, we’ve forgotten again.) Many commented on how Rabin, who dedicated his life to security and to the welfare of the Jewish people, was portrayed as a traitor and an enemy of the Jewish people. Reading Parashat VaYera last week, and thinking ahead to Khayei Sarah this week, I couldn’t help but compare Rabin to Avraham.
Avraham is anything but a passive personality. He argues with God over Sodom and Gomorrah, and fights kings to rescue his nephew Lot. According to the midrash, he and Sarah were tireless in their work to convince others to worship God. However, he also bends over backwards to make peace with Lot, letting Lot choose how to divide the territory when their respective shepherds begin to quarrel. He doesn’t pull rank. In last week’s Torah portion, it seems like he can dictate terms to Avimelekh and Phicol when they come to ask for Avraham’s blessing. The Philistines had not always been kind to Avraham. Yet Avraham agrees to Avimeleikh’s request to “deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you.” (Genesis 21:22) Yes, Avraham reproaches Avimelekh for the well of water that the servants of Avimelekh had stolen. However, he then gives sheep and oxen to Avimelekh, and gives a gift of seven ewe lambs to prove that he had dug the well. Give a gift to somebody to prove that they took something from you? All of this in the Land that God promised to Avraham and his descendents? If any Israeli leader today would act this way, s/he would be accused by some as defeatist and self effacing. His actions would be seen as reflecting a Diaspora mentality of powerlessness, if not downright traitorous and self hating.
In this week’s portion, Avraham is again self effacing. Rather than exploit the fact that the Hittites recognize Avraham as “the elect of God among us.” (Genesis 23:6), and even though this is the Land that God has promised him, Avraham bows low and insists on paying an exorbitant price for the Cave of Makhpelah after Ephron offers to give it to him for free. OK, this may have been traditional bargaining, and Ephron may never have really intended to give it for free. Yes, the thousands who will spend this Shabbat in Hebron believe that Avraham had to buy the cave because he was symbolically buying the entire Land of Israel, despite God’s Promise. But, I again hear those modern Israeli voices who would castigate any of our leaders who would be so subservient, rather than proudly taking by force what is rightfully ours because of God’s Promise, and our power.
It gets worse. When the Philistines seize wells from Isaac next week, he will move on and dig new wells, rather than fight for what is his. He too makes a pact with the Avimelekh and Phicol of his time, who speak of how kind they have been to him. Jacob speaks of the lands he won with his sword and bow (Genesis 49:22), but rebukes his children Simon and Levi for using deception to take revenge on the Hivites for raping their sister. Simon and Levi are true proud Jews. They answer their father, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis 34:31).
It is legitimate to ask, and even to disagree, when to fight, and when to stand up for one’s self. Each of our patriarchs demonstrate that true strength can include compromising for the sake of peace. We can take a jaundiced view, ignoring acts of assertiveness, and inner and outer strength by our patriarchs in order to portray them as weak, defeatist Jews with a Diaspora mentality. Or, we can understand that they had the wisdom when to know when to act with maximum assertiveness, and when to sanctify God’s Name, honor God’s Image in others and ultimately achieve their goals without exacerbating conflict.
We could be even more radical, and develop the ability to see matters through the eyes of others. And, if we truly believe in rights, we see not only our rights, but the rights of others. This is not to say that we ignore our rights because we only recognize the rights of others. There was a fascinating interview on the radio last Friday with MK Ahmed Tibi about the Balfour Declaration. When asked why the Arab world had not looked at all of the British declarations together, seeing as they wanted to ensure that each people had a national home that guaranteed rights to minorities, he asked how Israeli Jews would feel if President Trump would declare that Israel is the national home of today’s Israeli Arab population, and that Israeli Jews who are now 80% of the population be granted rights. (And, what would our world look like today if Arab leadership had been willing to make some of the compromises that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made?)
Am I, a human rights activist, undermining the concept of rights by arguing against standing for our rights at all times? Rights are not sacred. God is sacred, and we human beings have a spark of God within us. We need concepts of rights because our decisions about what must not be compromised must be grounded in something. Otherwise, some might be tempted to forfeit everything “for the sake of peace.” However, it is the human that sanctifies human rights, because it is the human being that is the human being that is created in God’s Image, not the right. Rights must serve human beings.
As the poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
The ability of Avraham and Yitzhak to make peace with Avimelekh is part of their spiritual greatness. Ultimately the both had the water they needed and relations with their neighbors that allowed them to use and enjoy that water. Avraham’s respect for the Hittites only strengthened their respect for him. By honoring fellow human beings, he brought honor to himself, and to God.
If we are truly worth descendents of Avraham, we must treat others in his final resting place as he would.