Friday, November 19, 2010

More Jacob

This is the D'var Torah I'm planning to deliver tonight at Temple Beit Torah. Enjoy!

This week, the Jacob saga continues. Our patriarch, on his way back to Canaan after years of exile with his wives, concubines, children and considerable wealth, is still afraid of his brother, Esau. He divides his entourage into three camps in case Esau attacks; that way he'll have a remnant with which to start over.

In the night before Jacob's meeting with Esau, he wrestles with an angel all night. Another dream? But no, this time it is apparently seen as an actual, physical encounter. As the sun is rising, the angel blesses Jacob and re-names him Israel, meaning he-will-strive-with-G-d.

Despite Jacob/Israel's fears, Esau awaits with a loving reception...sort of. Outwardly it's an encounter one would expect between two long-separated brothers, but the Rabbis clearly felt some ambivalence about the undercurrents of the meeting. And Israel clearly feels it, as he tells his brother of his plan to settle in another part of the Land, far away from the flocks and pens of his brother who has also become quite wealthy in the years of their separation.

Israel clearly does not fully trust his brother. But he understands he must make an attempt to reconcile with him if they're to live in the same country. So he sends a delegation ahead with gifts and warm greetings, and he physically approaches his brother without an accompanying war party.

Jacob is caught in the broad nether-land between fully trusting and fully distrusting. And we, likewise often find our relations with others falling into that extensive ground.

It is dangerous to trust others completely. How many of us can relate to having been 'burned' after lending a considerable sum of money to a relative or a close friend or associate? Who among us had an unfortunate experience after co-signing a loan? Has anybody ever let someone stay in their house and returned to find something missing or broken? And these are just examples of PERSONAL trust that was returned with bad-will.

What about relations between groups, for example the different groups with which we find we must forge alliances in order to improve life in our country, in our world? I'll give you an example that comes immediately to mind, from my recent experience that some of you here tonight experienced with me. As you know, I recently invited a representative of the Muslim community to come and teach us something about Islam. Since it is alleged that Americans in general are very ignorant of Islam and likely to fear it and its adherents out of that ignorance, does it not follow that we should be willing to sit and learn something from a representative of that community? Very hearteningly, a number of you showed up to listen and learn respectfully.

The presentation by Mr. Yousufi was supposed to be in the framework of a series of discreet events that would ultimately, hopefully lead to some form of dialogue and fellowship between members of his community and this one. We hadn't worked out the details, but we had discussed the process to some degree. And an agreement that we made immediately in our discussion - it was Yousufi's suggestion, but in offering it he could have been reading my mind - was that we should leave the Arab-Israeli dispute out of the structure of the dialogue. Yousufi expressed that it would could not be anything other than a point of contention, conspiring to spoil any good efforts we might be making. From my standpoint, it is irrelevant to the notion that we are two minority groups in American life that actually have quite a bit in common. Few of you find that the large part of your Jewish consciousness resides in the conflicts of the Middle East, and my assumption was that for most members of the local Muslim community that would also hold true. Perhaps, but clearly not for Mr. Yousufi.

Despite our agreement, Yousufi chose to use his audience with us to lecture us about the sins of Israel. Some of you responded quite vigorously,as I would expect you to. But most importantly, an excellent opportunity for further dialogue and mutual support between our two communities vanished, at least for the immediate future. And that's unfortunate.

I trusted Mr. Yousufi, but in truth I didn't stick my neck TOO far out, and that minimized the damage. To be honest, in proceeding with the 'baby steps' toward dialogue I was very much thinking about Israel's caution in approaching his brother, as chronicled in this week's Torah portion. If one aught to hold one's brother, Esau,at arm's length after a bitter conflict,how much more so one's distant cousin, Ishmael? Approach,trust as much as necessary to open a dialogue, and be ready to either open up more-or withdraw, depending on the other side's behavior. Or to put it as we did when I worked in intelligence: In G-d we trust...all other we monitor.

As I've said on so many occasions that I know I sound like a broken record - for those who remember what a record is! - The Torah, whatever the process that resulted in our having it in its existing form, is an endless repository of some of the most sublime wisdom known to humanity. The lesson we learn from Israel this week is just one example.

Shabbat shalom!