Friday, December 5, 2014

Bigger than that! Jacob mode vs interfaith embrace and the inner Jihad of Yisrael

An edited version of my speech at the Together For Humanity Interfaith dinner, 30 Nov 2014. 

Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was afraid of his own brother Esau (1). It is the same today: Australians fear their fellow Australians. 

Jacob offered a heartfelt prayer, “Save me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, (and my family too) a mother and children”.

The dreaded moment arrived. Jacob met his brother Esau, who, because of an event in another time and another place, hated him.  Jacob bowed respectfully to his brother seven times (2).

“Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they cried”.  We, Australians, need to meet our fellow Australian brothers and sisters respectfully to address the fear and embrace one another.

Before Jacob was to meet his brother, there was some internal work he needed to do, late at night, when he was “alone” (3). This is illustrated in an encounter he had with a “man”, who is said to be the guardian angel of his brother Esau (4). Jacob intended to run away from the encounter with his brother, but the angel was sent to prevent this. Jacob needed to show up and see that he would not be harmed (5).  With his escape cut off, Jacob wrestled with the angel. He asked his brother’s guardian angel to agree with his side of the argument (6). “Bless me,” (7) he pleaded, as if to say ‘tell me that I am right and my brother is wrong’.

The angel asked Jacob, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he replied.
The angel declared, “No more will your name be said as Jacob!” (8) The name Jacob means the one who holds others back, who plays a petty game, trying to prove that his/her group “are really the good ones”. “No!” the angel insisted, as if to say ‘it is time for you to embrace a bigger vision about who you are. Your new name, your new identity, is now Yisrael, the one who strives with God, who succeeds in an inner struggle/jihad in matters of the spirit and with men. You have a great purpose as the father of the Bnai Yisrael, (Banei Yisrael), to spread belief in God and promote righteousness.

Greg Barton, an Anglican Professor and expert on radicalisation, told me recently that, as he reads the story, Jacob had a cognitive opening. His thinking expanded. This is exactly what Australians of many backgrounds need. We need our thinking expanded. We need to be bigger - not allow our fears or the failings of some to define us or one another. We need to get to know the other as the other truly is and can potentially be, by stretching out a hand of friendship and showing respect. This has been the work of Together For Humanity, with over 75,000 children across Australia, many of whom had never met a Muslim or a Jew before. These children have participated in Together For Humanity programs facilitated by a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew and sometimes others.

Of course, there are reasons for hate, fear or avoiding embracing each other. Things have happened, thousands of miles from here that are unjust. There are legitimate concerns for many of us. It is not racist to say so. Things also happen in Australia that worry us - words spoken and prejudice. People wonder and worry about what people “here” think about what is happening “there”. Do they condemn it? Do they agree with it? How strong is the commitment to coexistence “on the other side”? Are they sincere?

Mistrust has deep roots. Esau’s embrace, kiss and weeping with Jacob have also been questioned. Some commentary suggests that Esau intended to bite Jacob’s neck (9). Esau is portrayed as telling himself, “I will not kill Jacob, my brother, with arrows and a bow, but I will kill him with my mouth and suck his blood!” (10). However there are other traditions that teach that, in that moment, Esau kissed Jacob sincerely “with his whole heart” (11).

The debate rages on in the Torah. The next verse tells us that “Esau lifted up his eyes, saw the women and the children and asked who they were” (12). The words “he saw the women” are interpreted to have sexual connotations - “Cursed are the wicked, that even during a time of trouble, their (evil) desires rules them” (13). Commentary ascribes this kind of thinking to Jacob as well. His daughter, Dina, is completely absent from the narrative. Even when it explicitly lists Jacob's wives and his eleven sons (14), there is no mention of his daughter, Dina. According to the Midrash (commentary), “Jacob put Dina in a box and locked it”, to protect her from Esau. However, this fear is met with divine disapproval and given as a “reason” for Dina’s eventually ending up in a “forbidden marriage” (15) with Shchem, the local prince, who abducted and abused her (16).  The ambivalence lingers on, thousands of years later.

What I take from all of this, are three lessons: 1) Conflict transformation is possible. 2) It is not easy to overcome fear and suspicion. 3) There are often ambiguities and judgement calls, such as, ‘do we ignore the elephant in the room, Israel/Palestine, for example?’ ‘do we feed it and allow the problems half a world away to take over and destroy the bridges we have so carefully built here?’  

At the dinner, Sheikh Ahmed Abdo suggested that “it is time that we stopped building bridges and started walking across the bridges we have already built”. Together For Humanity in its thirteenth years is attempting to walk across these bridges. Our vision is to ensure that every child and every teacher experiences an opening of their mind and expanding of their spirit, so that no-one needs to be afraid, no-one will choose to hate any group and we all have a sense of belonging together.

וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָיו וַֹיִֹשָֹׁקֵֹהֹוֹּ וַיִּבְכּוּ

“Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they cried”. We Australians need to meet our fellow Australians, our neighbours, our brothers and sisters, respectfully, to address the fear, and to embrace one another!


1) Genesis 32:8
2) Genesis 33:3
3) Genesis 32:25
4) Beresheet Rabba 77
5) Rashbam on 32:23 & 25, Chizkuni on 32:25, this is similar to an angel being sent to stop Balaam on his journey to curse the Israelites which was also contrary to God’s will.
6) Rashi to Genesis 32:27, also in Midrash Aggada and Zohar part 1, 144 cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 1 p. 1284, footnote 136
7) Genesis 32:27
8) Genesis 32:28-29
9) Beresheet Rabba 78
10) Avot Drabbi Nathan, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 1 p. 1302, footnote 16
11) Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar in Beresheet Rabba 78
12) Genesis 33:5
13) Midrash Habiur from an ancient manuscript, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 1 p. 1302, 18
14) Genesis 32:23
15) Beresheet Rabba 76
16) Genesis 34

No comments:

Post a Comment