From Ben-Ghazi to Yom Kippur

 On Yom Kippur, synagogues should read the story in Genesis 25 of reconciliation between Ishmael and Isaac, and for weeks and months synagogues, churches, and mosques should visit each other en masse to break the cycle of fear and hatred and violence between the Abrahamic communities that broke into murder in Ben-Ghazi, Libya,  as it did weeks ago in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

That's the bottom line of this essay: Why do I say this?

 “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” --  Martin Luther King, Jr.

As we absorbed the news of a dreadfully disgusting film casting contempt on Islam and the resulting vile murders of four American foreign service officers, I began to think again about the Torah stories we are about to read for Rosh HaShanah.

For they are ancient stories about fear, anger, and estrangement between different branches of the same family. They presage the fear, anger, and estrangement between the Abrahamic families today – and yet they lead toward love and healing. What can we learn from them?

Rosh Hashanah traditionally begins with a profoundly disturbing story: Abraham and Sarah insist that Hagar (a name that means “the stranger” in Hebrew), who has been Abraham’s second wife and the mother of his first son, Ishmael, leave the family. Sarah says that Ishmael has been “making laughter” (in Hebrew, mitzachek) at her son Isaac (in Hebrew, Yitzchak), whose name means “Laughing One.”  (en 21: 1-19)

One way to understand the story is that the two boys are so much like each other, though not identical – Making laughter/ Laughter – that they are clouding each other’s identities, and must separate for the health of them both, even though the separation is painful.

But the story gets more painful. Abraham, who has been reluctant to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the family, sends them into the wilderness with a jug of water. But it runs out, and Hagar, fearing her son will die, begins to cry.

The Holy One Who is the Interbreathing of all life becomes visible to her. As her eyes open, she sees that her tears have themselves watered a wellspring -– the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me –- and not only are their lives saved, but they become the forebears of a great nation: the Arabs and Islam.

Abraham’s other son, Isaac, in Jewish understanding becomes the forebear of the Jewish people.

Here pauses the story as we read it on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. On the second day, we read how Abraham takes his other son, Isaac, up a mountain-top, preparing  to make him a burnt-offering  to God, who he thinks has asked this of him. At the last moment, the compassionate aspect of God intervenes to spare Isaac.

In the Bible, the story of these two endangered brothers continues into a passage that has traditionally been read on a regular Shabbat but not on the sacred special days when synagogues are filled with spiritually thirsty and responsive Jews.

 I believe the completion of the story should be read aloud in every synagogue on Yom Kippur. It is a story of reconciliation, which is what Yom Kippur is all about. And just as the story of estrangement presages the vituperative video and the violent response of the last several days, this tale of reconciliation should be our teaching for next week, next year, next generation.

It appears in Gen. 25: 8-11. Abraham has died and his two sons come together to bury him, the most dangerous person in both their lives. It seems they have forgiven him, and now they reconcile with each other. For Isaac goes to live at the very Well of the Living  One Who Sees Me that has been life-giving  water for Hagar and Ishmael.

At last, the two brothers can fully see each other. 

The pattern in which contempt and hatred toward Islam leads to hatred of the West and to violence that is likely to lead to still more hatred of Islam is now well under way.

Indeed, the making of the vituperative film seems likely to have been deliberately calculated to stir the violence that happened. Why else dub it into Arabic?

The pattern and the theory of how to deal with it is no surprise:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” --  Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do we take this teaching into treality? How do we interrupt this lethal pattern?

The US government tried to prevent disaster by publicly decrying the film before violence erupted. Good!  But not enough. What needs to happen at the grass roots of our society?

Some democratic countries have tried to outlaw hate speech – like the outlawry of Holocaust denial and of Nazi-like speech in many European countries. I do NOT recommend that for the USA, where our forms of experiment in democracy has taken the direction of   -- “Bad speech? More speech! Better speech!!”

But there is another approach: the conscious and deliberate mobilization of public opinion to oppose and disallow hatred of Islam. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I am suggesting that if we put the story of Ishmael-Isaac reconciliation front and center before the Jewish community on Yom Kippur --  followed by full discussion of what that means now--  and figure out ways to do analogous discussions in churches and mosques, we can go much further into building the kind of public atmosphere in which vituperative speech and violent action against Islam is deeply and fully opposed.

This desire did not just arise for me in the last few days, though they have strengthened it.  In 2006, I put a great deal of energy into working with leading Muslim and Christian teachers as co-authors to write and find a publisher (Beacon Press) for a book called The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Peace and Hope for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, with a preface by Karen Armstrong. I know it has been used, especially in churches, to stimulate the kind of discussion I have suggested.  I hope it will be used in synagogues and mosques and wherever spiritual seekers and pursuers of peace gather.

But even “good speech” is not enough.  It would be ideal for congregations-full of Jews and Christians, in the coming week after Rosh Hashanah, to come to mosques to share their revulsion toward the vile attack on Islam in the video.  It would be ideal for American Muslims to visit churches and synagogues with the same intent: seeing each other fully.

It is not just video that we must atone for. The number of physical attacks on mosques and Muslims has been multiplying among us.  They include the “mistaken” murders of Sikhs by someone who thought they were Muslims.  (Did you think only Libyans could kill people out of “religious” fear and hatred?)

So we should visit each other. If not this week, the week after. And the weeks and months after that.

Let us of the various Abrahamic communities gather as a society at the Well of the Living  One Who Sees Me, to make  sure that we can see each other in the light cast by the Holy One Who is the Breath of life.

Shalom, salaam, peace!






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