Friday, December 1, 2017

Haftarat Va-Yishlach: Forging a New Relationship with Esau

In the wake of the US president retweeting anti-Muslim videos, I want to dedicate this blog post to interfaith relations and interfaith dialogue. Is there a problem of fundamentalist in the world? Absolutely. And is much
of it done in the name of Islam and Allah? Sadly, yes, though Muslims around the world have decried the violence, and have emphasized time and again that Islam is a religion of peace, love, and compassion. Would we, as Jews, want the ultra-Orthodox in Israel to speak for all of us? Or allow their brand of Judaism (if you can even call it that...) to be considered THE official representation of what we stand for? How fitting, then, that our Torah portion this week speaks of our complicated and multi-faceted relationship with other peoples, and the Haftarah echoes that tension in a powerful and eternally-reverberating way.

The real tragedy - in my opinion - of those tweeted videos is that they stereotype and generalize. "Islam is..." And yet, NONE of us are just one thing. We are all complex and layered. Earlier in Genesis, we learned that Jacob and Esau are
brothers, children of the same two parents. But rivalry poisoned their relationship, and Esau vowed to kill Jacob for stealing their father's blessing. This week, we read about their dramatic reunion, which takes place decades later. And to our (and Jacob's) great surprise, Esau offers only love and reconciliation. They are a family once again. It is a beautiful scene... and yet we know that the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, become our bitter enemies. Then, in a later generation, we are allies again. Our Haftarah, the entire prophecy of Ovadiah, takes us (most likely) to yet another, later era, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE, where the Edomites are once again an enemy of Israel. And so on it goes...

Ovadiah rails against the deceit of Esau when Israel lay in ruins: "How could you enter the gate of My people on its day of disaster, gaze in glee with the others on its misfortune on its day of disaster, and lay hands on its wealth?!?" (1:13) He goes on to prophesy that "As you did, so shall it be done
to you; your conduct shall be requited." (15) You'll get what's coming to you!! And what I find so sad here is the endlessness of it all. We did to them and they did to us; Jacob tricked Esau, and Edom attacked Israel. We're still doing it today! We engage in so much senseless "whataboutism," where we say, "sure, we did x, but what about what THEY did???" It's an endless cycle, and truly nobody wins. Our ancient rabbinic ancestors loved Ovadiah's prophecies, because they used "Edom" as a euphemism for the evil Roman Empire, and heaped insult upon curse on Edom when they couldn't castigate their ACTUAL oppressors, the Romans. All these cultural memories, the millennia of fighting, are today wrapped up in our associations with Muslims, Arabs, and The Other.

We CAN break the cycle. But we first have to realize how ancient and deep the distrust is, see it in ourselves, and then actively choose - again and again - to reject that narrative. To spurn the objectionable videos that perpetuate stereotypes, and those who traffic in them. Just last week, I had the tremendous privilege of being honored by a local religious group that is a tremendous partner of ours.
The Islamic Center of Chester, also called Masjid Mustaqeem, asked me to be one of their honorees at their Appreciation Banquet. A dozen Ohevites joined me at this wonderful ceremony. And we were blessed to see some of the best that the Islamic faith - and its adherents - have to offer. It is a beautiful religion, with SO many similarities to our own. They are our brother; Esau to our Jacob, Ishmael to our Isaac, in the purest sense of that bond. We are family. Another honoree at the banquet offered a beautiful poem that touched each and every one of us. And I am posting it here, because it utterly encompasses my own view of the world, and of our shared God. We know our history; we know what the Edomites did, what Ovadiah witnessed, and the rabbis endured. But that is not my reality. I wholeheartedly spurn that narrative. I will form my own relationships and my own opinions; my hand is entirely and lovingly held open to my brother, Esau.

Muslim poem by an unknown author:
“I asked Allah for strength and Allah gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked Allah for wisdom and Allah gave me problems to solve.
I asked Allah for courage and Allah gave me obstacles to overcome.
I asked Allah for love and Allah gave me troubled people to help.
I asked Allah for favors and Allah gave me opportunities.
Maybe I received nothing I wanted, but I received everything I needed – Alhamdulillah.”

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Victorgrigas on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of CFCF on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image of Twitter post that (sarcastically) embodies "Whataboutism"
4. Image of honorees at Masjid Mustaqeem's Appreciation Banquet, courtesy of Amy Pollack

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