19 years later

19 years later

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

The peace treaty between Jordan and Israel was signed 19 years ago this past week, on land that marked the boundary between the ancient kingdoms of Edom and Israel.

According to the Torah, in Genesis 32, the name Israel is given to our patriarch Jacob during a dream in which he wrestles with God. The Bible’s first mention of Edom is found in this week’s Torah portion, where we read of Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew.

“Once when Jacob was cooking a stew Esau came in from the field famished. Esau said to Jacob ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down for I am famished’-which is why Esau was named Edom. Jacob replied ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said ‘I’m about to die from hunger. What use is my birthright to me?’ Jacob said ‘Swear to me first.’ So Esau took an oath and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew. Esau ate, drank got up and went on his way. Thus did Esau spurn his birthright”(Genesis 25:29-32).

The primary purpose of this story is to establish Jacob’s right to inherit the mantle of communal leadership. It is, once again, biblical argument against primogeniture. Communal leaders should be chosen based upon ability and capability, not by birth order or right. According to the Bible, Esau, like his uncle Ishmael, lacked the spirituality and the commitment to morality that was necessary for the man meant to be the heir of Abraham. Jacob, the “ish tam,” the simple or mild man, whom the rabbis of the Midrash describe as a student of Torah, was eager to assume the responsibilities, as well as the rights, of leadership.

Jacob was not a perfect man by any measure. The beauty of Torah is that our heroes are presented to us as real people with their positive qualities accentuated but with their failings revealed as well.

I sincerely doubt that Jacob, or his father, Isaac, or his grandfather Abraham, could be elected to public office in twenty-first century America. Imagine the negative ad campaign opponents could wage: Jacob – the man who withheld food from his starving brother!

Jacob and Esau were brothers, who in truth were quite different from each other. From the story of the lentil stew until their reconciliation decades later, the two were bitter enemies. Finally, in the dramatic narrative we will read two weeks from now, immediately following the dream in which Jacob becomes Israel, Edom and Israel are able to reconcile their differences and live side by side in peace with each other.

On Wednesday October 26, 1994, as a worldwide audience watched the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, I was awed by the fact that the children of Israel and the children of Edom were following in the footsteps of our biblical ancestors and making peace with each other. The poignancy of the moment was increased for me when I realized that the two heads of state – King Hussein, the great grandson of King Faisal of Arabia, and President Ezer Weizmann, the nephew of Chaim Weizmann -were reconciling differences and agreeing to live side by side in peace, 75 years after their ancestors first attempted to make peace at the end of World War I. Moreover, all of the leaders on that desert dais 19 years ago were men who had made many mistakes and miscalculations over the course of their public lives. None of them had an unblemished record. In the negative political climate of early 21st century America, none of the Jordanians or Israelis at that signing ceremony could ever get elected. Yet I believe that we could argue successfully that only people who are aware of their own failures could have made the compromises necessary to reach peace by in essence recognizing the birthrights of their opponents.

With the hindsight of 19 years, we know that the dreams that were being dreamed by the children of Jacob and Esau on that autumn day have not yet been realized. Modern Amalekites have terrorized both Jacob and Esau, and turned the warm peace of 1994 into the cold reality of a Middle East that is a more dangerous place not only for Arabs and Israelis but for Americans as well than it was when President Clinton witnessed the peace treaty signed by King Hussein and President Weizmann. On this week, when we again read Parshat Toldot, let us affirm that “b’eleh toldot” – in this generation – we will rededicate ourselves as Jews and as Americans. Piece by piece, we will reweave the fabric of peace between the children of Jacob and Esau and between all the children of Isaac and Ishmael.