November 3, 2023
In pain and sorrow and utter heartbreak I – we all – have watched the events in Israel unfold. I know I am not alone in these feelings, and even with my background in and familiarity with the Hebrew Bible, ancient Near East history and the contemporary geopolitical conflict, I have nonetheless often found myself asking, How did we get here?
There are many ways to answer this question, and thousands of years of history to draw from, but the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the claim to that little strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River can be traced, according to both Jewish and Muslim interpretation, to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayera.
In last week’s parsha Abraham fathers his first son, Ishmael by the handmaid Hagar, and in this week’s, Abraham and Sarah are told they will, in their advanced age of 90+ finally have their own child, and Isaac is born (click here for an INCREDIBLE video interpretation by my friend and talented artist, Hadar Ahuvia). Then, Sarah – whether jealous of Hagar for conceiving when she could not, as some interpretations say, or afraid of potential competition between Ishmael and Isaac – demands Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. According to Jewish and Muslim sacred texts, Hagar and Ishmael wander through the desert, and each son nearly dies and then is miraculously spared and respectively promised to become a great nation; Isaac becomes the progenitor of the people of Israel, and ultimately, the Jewish people, and Ishmael is understood to be the ancestor of the prophet Mohammad and, according to the Qu’ran, together with Abraham, built the foundations of the Kaaba in Mecca.
From a common origin, it is in this moment, rife with tension and heartbreak, whether in spite of, or because of deep familial ties, where our stories and our peoples first diverged, and have continued to over the centuries. And to my mind, this only adds to the heartbreak and trepidation instilled in the face of the increased antisemitism and islamophobia that this war has unleashed closer to home; this senseless violence and vitriol that has sent everyone into their respective corners, bracing for another shoe to drop, when in reality, we need one another now, more than ever…
And so, this Shabbat, as we recount this story of ancient, intergenerational fracture and trauma, may we learn from the Torah’s wisdom, and do our best to hold space for both narratives’ truths, honoring the unique position of our collective ancestors then, and the lived reality of all who call that little slice of land home now.
I hope you’ll join me in praying for a Shabbat shalom, a Shabbat of peace and wholeness, insofar as is possible, for both the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar, and for all of Am Yisrael.