Torah Minute, Lech Lecha, Oct 1991


I suppose it's obvious that when the time came for the assignment of Lech Lecha, my name naturally floated to the top of the barrel, as Rabbi. Jacobson remembered George Bush's personal challenge to myself and 500,000 others:

Lech lecha llmilchama bamidbar arvit, vlani holech ledoog b'Kinnebunkport.

This loosely translates to "Get YE to Saudi Arabia, while I get ME fishing!"

Lech Lecha is a portion of many beginnings, many births. Not the least of which is the birth of our monotheistic faith enumerated in the covenant between Hashem and the descendants our Patriarch Abraham. But for as many times as I read Lech Lecha in the light of recent events, I confess I am only moved by one birth, one beginning - the birth of Ishmael, the father of the Arabic people. I will therefore devote this entire "Torah Minute" to the implications of this birth on our lives today.

Rashi explains that the word "LECHA" used in the context of "LECH LECHA" means "Go FOR YOUR OWN BENEFIT". Abram is commanded to embark upon a journey, for his own benefit, because his current abode, rife with idol-worshippers, was an unfit place to raise his sons.

I too was commanded (by the U. S. Army) to make a journey which would prove of great personal benefit. Four months before Saudi Arabia, my services were requested at our European Headquarters in Rotterdam to support the deployment of American forces from Europe to the Persian Gulf. Now, I am descended from people who despised everything about European life. I regret to say I inherited most of their prejudices. Imagine the trepidation I felt in late November when told that in four days time I'd be leaving for a 30 day trip to Europe. I literally had visions of being greeted at the airport by torch-wielding hordes, eager to renew the Pogroms which prompted my grandparents to leave Europe at the turn of the century.

Fortunately, not long after arriving, my fears were mitigated. I was promptly accepted in an American and Dutch community of professionals ardently working towards a common goal. The Dutch were warm, congenial and eager to make friends. They were very cognizant of history and, amazingly, well aware the plight of Dutch Jewry during the Holocaust.

I enjoyed the people, I enjoyed the beer, and I left Europe, having grown both intellectually and spiritually by leaving behind forever some of the hatred and fear that were the legacy of a previous generation. Soon, however, I would be sent on another journey, again to confront my prejudices. But, this hatred would be all mine, born of the experiences my generation, and would forever overshadow the good which came from my sojourn in Europe. Tragically, this hatred is directed against the descendants of our half-brother, Ishmael.

Why did there have to be an Ishmael? Why did Hashem, who in His Omnipotence certainly foresaw the suffering that the Jew would endure at the hand of the Arabs, save Ishmael twice from perishing of thirst in the desert? Why did He make nearly the same covenant with the descendants of Ishmael that He made with the descendants of Isaac and Jacob - namely that our respective numbers will be multiplied and we would both become great nations.

Some find an answer and perhaps a reason for hope in the words of the Haftorah where Isaiah prophesies that those who oppress and try to destroy us will themselves be destroyed. They cite the fact that this prophesy has indeed been realized with such civilizations as the Egypt, Greece, Persia and Rome. I do not believe however that this prophesy will ever apply to the descendants of Ishmael. I believe that as long as Hashem remembers His covenant with us, He will be bound to remember His covenant with the Ishmaelites, and for as long as we Jews exist, the descendants of Ishmael will live nearby, eternally slinging arrows and pelting us with taunts - as Ishmael once did to Isaac.

Why then, Ishmael? Clearly, the one distinction between the covenants of the Children of Israel and the Children of Ishmael is that ours includes the Torah. The beautiful Aramaic word for Torah - ORISAH illustrates the natural Jewish inclination to move towards the light of knowledge, and shun the darkness of ignorance. The place of the Ishmaelites is forever to remind the Jew of the moral depths we might sink to, lest we abandon our desire for education and adopt a faith of ignorance and its natural outgrowth - bigotry.

Ignorance and bigotry which allowed a few self-serving Emirs to enflame Arab mobs to massacre children at Ma'alot and commit hundreds of other anti-Jewish atrocities.

Ignorance and bigotry which allowed a group of demagogues to incite a people, themselves so often the victims of lynching, to lynch a Yeshiva student in Crown Heights.

Ignorance and bigotry which prompted Dr. Jeffries to spend so much scholarly effort in scapegoating the Jews by uncovering an obscure connection between Jewish businessman and the 200 year enslavement of the African people in America. Think of what he could have accomplished for his people had he spent even a small amount of time studying the 400 year enslavement of the Jewish people by AFRICANS!

But, don't think for one minute that ignorance and bigotry are the exclusive properties of the non-Jew. How many times have I recently heard, in front of our children, such expressions as our "Shvartse Mayor this.." and our "Shvartse Police Commissioner that..". How many innuendoes have I heard about the gentlemen who just moved in across the street? This must stop! We have every right to criticize the racist antics of say, Al Sharpton - but not in equally racist terms. Bigotry cannot be used as a weapon against bigotry - it will yield the same result as trying to put out a fire by dousing it with gasoline.

And then there is me. How was I to feel after returning from Saudi Arabia. Because of a ridiculous conflict between two Ishmaelite Kingdoms, I would be absent during five of the last seven months of my mother's life, missing the last Passover together with my family, and missing the last opportunities to receive the blessing of Reb Yisrael Zev, Ha Cohen, of blessed memory. After a lifetime of witnessing and deploring Arab bigotry toward my people, I returned from the Persian Gulf more hateful and more bigoted than any Arab - and for this I am deeply ashamed.

Perhaps because I intuitively feel that such a hatred is neither physically nor spiritually healthy, I made a personal challenge to myself during the recent season of repentance, which I urge all of you here to join me in. Let us together resolve NOT to lower ourselves to the level of those who would destroy us by emulating their ignorance and hatreds. Let us resolve to challenge our racist adversaries through knowledge and fact rather than engage in a duel of name-calling. I know that this is not an easy challenge to accept, I freely admit I have problems every time I see a Kaffiya. But when wronged, we must, for the sake of our own existence, confine our contempt only to individuals who wrong us, and their acts.

Our sages teach that with the rise of Islam nearly 1400 years ago, and certainly now with a world dependent of OPEC oil, Hashem has in fact fully fulfilled His covenant with Ishmael. What about ours - do we sink to the level of Dr. Jeffries and spend our valuable time looking for excuses for our failure to convince Hashem we are worthy of redemption? Let us take positive steps now to eliminate from our own ranks the sins of ignorance and bigotry which lengthen our Diaspora and dissuade Hashem from redeeming us in the final phase of the Covenant given in Lech Lecha.

Genesis 12 - 17

Isaiah 40:27 - 41:16