The Genesis and Exodus Models of Conflict Resolution: VaEra

Amal Sumarin and her granddaughter Diana. Two of the 18 family members threatened with eviction by the KKL-JNF (Photo: Rabbi Carl Perkins)

Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes in “God Wrestling” on the differing models of conflict resolution in Genesis and Exodus.  In Genesis, he points out that generation after generation there is a conflict between brothers. Despite what was the accepted practice at the time, the younger brother is favored.  He is the one destined to receive the mantle of leadership and be the inheritor of the spiritual tradition (Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. Waskow concentrates on brothers, but Rachel is also favored over Leah.).  However, we know of no conflict between the final pair of siblings in Genesis, Joseph’s children Ephraim and Menasha. This is because when Jacob blesses his grandchildren, he blesses them together.  Over Joseph’s objections, he places his right hand, signifying the greater blessing, on the head of Ephraim, the younger brother.  However, his left hand is on Menasha’s head.  To this day, we bless our male children with Jacob’s words, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasha.”

In our Torah portion, Va’Era, the attempt to free the Israelites via a win win understanding bringing blessing to all fails. God employs plagues, causing great suffering for the Egyptians.   Initially, Pharaoh digs in his heals, but in the latter plagues we are told that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  Torah commentators are hard pressed to explain how this is compatible with our notion of free will.

Rabbi Waskow is less interested in that question, but does view the Exodus as a second model of conflict resolution:

“One model. The model that can end in reconciliation. It is not the only model of conflict in the Torah:  there is the Exodus as well. In Exodus, liberation cannot be achieved until the powerful have been shattered and the oppressed have departed, once and for all. There is no reconciliation with Pharaoh.

And not only with Pharaoh.  The model of Exodus is one of the recurrent themes of the Torah.  For this and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, even the words the Torah uses are so much the same as to signal us to listen:…

This pattern, the pattern of Exodus, has impressed itself with great power on the minds of every people that has learned the Torah.  It is the model for modern revolutions, national and social, where the saving remnant hopes to wipe out oppression and corruption, depart physically or politically from the oppressors and corruptors, and remake their country. The pattern has been so powerful that we have paid little attention to the alternative that emerges from Genesis: the war and peace of brothers…

Today we need the model of the brothers. For there are some struggles where we do not want to destroy the oppressor or separate into a new society. Instead we need liberation with reconciliation…

Exodus may be the last resort in every struggle. If we must, we must. But we should know that the door out is not the door in. Exodus is not the path to Eden.”  (pp. 21-22)

I would add that Exodus is not the way to Eden, but it is the way to Sinai.

Our struggles may not reach the proportions of the Exodus (although I often wonder how we Israelis will appear if the Palestinians one day write their Haggadah — their retelling, as a free people, of their struggle for liberation), but those of us who work on a daily basis for human rights and social change constantly face this dilemma. In which situations can we achieve justice through agreement?  When must we engage in difficult and painful confrontation. It is clearly preferable not to get to the point of a total break, certainly when dealing with internal struggles with our fellow Israelis.  Sometimes we make the mistake of being too eager to resort to no holds barred conflict, with no room for compromise. On the other hand, there is the danger that our desire for reconciliation and unity leads us to make compromises that leave human rights victims still suffering and oppressed.

Currently we are in the middle of a renewed struggle to prevent the Keren Kayemet/Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) from evicting the Sumarin family from their home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.  Although the family was living in their home, Israel used a draconian interpretation of the “Absentee Property Law” to transfer ownership to the Custodian for Absentee Property.  The children who were the legal heirs were living abroad, but a nephew of the deceased owner was living in the home, along with the family.  A few years later, after the publication of the State sponsored “Klugman Report,” the Government promised the High Court to cease applying the law in this manner.  However, it was too late for the Sumarin family.  Please click here for a Hebrew explanation of the Klugman report, and links to the report itself and appendixes.

The Custodian transferred the home to the KKL-JNF. As with many other acquired properties, we believe that the KKL-JNF and its subsidiary “Himanuta” planned on transferring ownership to the ELAD settler group, whose articles of incorporation include the goal of “Judaizing” Silwan.  The Sumarin home is adjacent to the entrance to the City of David visitor’s center run by ELAD.  Long ago they took much of the land around the home, and they covet what is left.  In 2011 we stopped the immanent eviction through a combination of the Genesis and Exodus models.  First, thousands wrote letters to KKL-JNF affiliates around the world. That was confrontational. Afterwards, we were able to achieve an agreement to freeze the eviction.  However, the KKL-JNF made it clear that there was no commitment to maintain the freeze indefinitely.

Today the KKL-JNF is again threatening to evict the family, if the family does not win an appeal in June.  I had very much hoped that this time we could stop the eviction without a major public campaign.  Himanuta, which is handling the eviction, is directed by a representative of the Reform Movement, as part of internal KKL-JNF coalition agreements.  There seemed to be interest in finding a solution. Unfortunately, after many conversations with the Reform Movement’s faction to the KKL-JNF board, I don’t see any agreed upon solution on the horizon.  The problem, we have been told, is money. The poverty stricken KKL-JNF cannot afford to give up the property. The conversation sometimes gets sidetracked to the details of the subsequent legal proceedings that have confirmed the right of the Himanuta, represented by a lawyer who also represents the ELAD, to evict the family. This ignores the fact that the courts accept as a given that it was “legal” for Israel to take the home in the first place.  If the Klugman report, the subsequent High Court pressure, and government agreement not to exploit the Absentee Property Law so improperly had been in place before Israel had taken (I would say “stolen.) the home, those subsequent legal proceedings would never have taken place.

Let’s not forget that in the balance are eighteen scared human beings constantly living with the threat of demolition. 

Unfortunately, it seems that we will need to again resort to an Exodus style head on confrontation. Commenting on the verses concluding last week’s portion and beginning this week’s, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (Germany. 1808-1888) writes that the attempt to talk to Pharaoh last week had to fail in order to make it clear to the Israelites that no human agency, even Moses and Aaron, could free them from Egypt. Only God could do so (commentary to Exodus 6:1-2.)  I have not given up entirely on our ability and responsibility to be partners with God in bringing justice to this world. However, I may have been naïve to believe that, unlike 2011, this time we could find a solution without confrontation.  Like the Israelites, perhaps I needed to be disabused of this notion.

It is worth pointing out that as the Exodus story opened in last week’s Torah portion, we were exposed to at least two additional models of resistance, if not conflict resolution.  We learned both from women.  The first is what in Arabic is called “sumud,” steadfastness.  The midrash teaches us that when the men gave in to despair, and no longer wanted to bring children into the world, the women refused to give up, and ensured that there was another generation.  We are even told that in the Tabernacle were the mirrors the women had used to entice their husbands. (Midrash Tanhuma, Pekudei: 9). For over twenty years, the Sumarin family has been living with the incredible psychological strain of the constant threat of eviction. One of the family members often says that he remembers living with constant fear as a child, and it breaks his heart that his children live with the same fear.  Sometimes I am devastated and embarrassed to see how it seems we have turned human beings into frightened mice in a cage.  Nevertheless, the fact is that they remain steadfast, rising above their fears and despair, to fight for their home.

I wrote last week about the midwives to the Israelites who endangered themselves, defying Pharaoh’s orders to kill the male children at birth, “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt told them’ they let the boys live.”(Exodus 1:17). Perhaps this is the first recorded example of civil disobedience.  I also sometimes ask myself whether we will get to the point of civil disobedience, if all else fails.  What will the family want to do?

Many commentators write that the goal of the plagues is to engender faith in God among the Israelites.  God seems to say this directly at the outset of next week’s Torah portion, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My sings among them—in order that you may know that I am Adonai.” (Exodus 10:1-2).  I have already mentioned Rabbi Hirsch’s understanding that the attempt to talk to Pharaoh had to fail.  However, the example set by the midwives teaches that our faith can and must strengthen and urge us to take the actions we humans are capable of taking.  This can be non-confrontational action that preserves life.

“Genesis style win-win reconciliation,” “uncompromising Exodus style confrontation,” “sumud,” or “civil disobedience?” With the grey in my beard should come the experience to know what to choose when. Not yet.  With lives hanging in the balance, I agree with Rabbi Waskow that we need to do everything possible to use the Genesis model to protect our fellow human beings and our own souls. However, all possible tools must be at our disposal.

Strengthened and driven by faith, as were the midwives, may it be God’s Will that we have the wisdom to know how to make the proper choices.  May we know to choose Genesis where possible, and be ready to choose Exodus and other models when necessary.

Shabbat Shalom.

The above is a slightly expanded and modified version of the dvar Torah (Torah commentary) I wrote this week for Rabbis For Human Rights, the organization I led for 21 years, and remain a member of.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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