A Biblical Perspective (1)
An impartial observer of the Middle East will realize that these are unusual times. Tens of thousands of Jews, from many different countries, are returning to their national and historic homeland after thousands of years. Arab states are beginning to reconsider their attitudes towards Israel now that they realize that after more than 50 years the Jewish State is here to stay.
Many gentiles throughout the world show new and keen interest in the Bible, proclaiming fulfillment of the old biblical prophecies. The continuous conflict between the Israelis and the Arabs, especially the Palestinian Arabs is constantly the focus of world attention with more broadcast hours and newspaper column space than any other conflict. It is the most discussed issue at the United Nations and the perceived root of international tension. It is held to have the potential to cause a large-scale Middle East conflict and even a global confrontation. Only in 1994, through intensive negotiations, some kind of breakthrough may have taken place.
The truth is, however, more prosaic. The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is something of a local affair. Looking on the world map, many larger hotbeds can be identified, with even greater issues at stake. For the religious mind all this presents a great challenge. What is the spiritual secret behind the conflict?
From the religious perspective, it seems that another, more profound point is being made. History is not made up of social, political, or economic factors alone, but above all of spiritual forces with far-reaching moral implications. As always, the religious person will turn to the Torah and Jewish tradition, the blueprint of all history and reality, to seek a deeper insight. It is the author’s hope that this essay may serve such a purpose.
The Israeli-Arab Conflict
The Torah relates a remarkable sequence of events toward the end of the life of Avraham, the patriarch and founder of monotheism: “And Avraham had become old and God blessed Avraham with everything” (Bereshith 24:1).
After the death of his beloved wife, Sarah, only one dream remained to be fulfilled: to marry off his son, Yitzchak, in order to fulfill God’s promises of spiritual continuity. With that accomplished, Avraham would finally be able to close his eyes and be “gathered to his fathers.”
And so we read that Avraham sent his faithful servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Yitzchak. After a long, protracted story, Yitzchak finally marries Rivka.
And the servant related to Yitzchak all the things he had done. And Yitzchak brought her to the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he married Rivka. She became his wife, and he loved her, and only then was Yitzchak comforted after his mother (Bereshith 24:66-67)
Now, finally, Avraham can die peacefully. His life’s work is accomplished. His great mission – to introduce monotheism and justice into this world – has been achieved, and the future of that mission has been guaranteed through the establishment of the family of Yitzchak. We now anticipate the moment when the Torah will inform us of the great patriarch’s death. However instead of Avraham dying, we read:
Then Avraham took a wife again and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midyan, Yishbok and Shuach. (Bereshith 25:1-2)
Does this not surprise us a little? We may be justified in asking why Avraham, a tired old man, should think about getting married again, not to mention fathering another six children.
If this is not perplexing enough, the Midrash identifies Avraham’s new wife:
Who is Keturah? Hagar! (2)
Hagar, it will be recalled, had, years earlier, been Avraham’s second wife after Sarah (Bereshith 16). But after Hagar had given birth to Yishmael, Avraham was forced by God to send Hagar and her son away. (Bereshith 21)
This occurred after protracted episodes of friction between Sarah and Hagar (Bereshith 16) and after Yishmael threatened to kill Yitzchak. (3)
At this point we are right to be puzzled. Why, after many years of separation, would Avraham remarry Hagar, the very woman who had been the cause of so much trouble in the past? Hagar represent a most tragic and somber moment in Avraham’s life, a tremendous setback accompanied by an intense feeling of failure. What could be worse for any man, let alone one epitomizing benevolence and justice, than having to send his wife and child away?
It might be further argued that in remarrying the very woman he had exiled many years earlier, Avraham was only courting disaster and conflict afresh.
In its perplexity, the Midrash asks, Who suggested this shidduch (match)? To our surprise we are told that it was Yitzchak’s suggestion. Commenting on Bereshith 24:62, the Midrash Rabbah observes that Yitzchak had been searching for Hagar and brought her to Avraham for a possible marriage. (4) Why would Yitzchak make such a suggestion? What was his motive in raking up the past? After all, it was he who had suffered most bitterly from the whole episode with Hagar.
The Birth of Yitzchak
In order to gain an understanding of these complex questions, it is necessary to examine the antecedent history of the relationship between Avraham, Sarah and Hagar, and between these protagonists and Yishmael. We read much earlier in the narrative:
And Sarai, Avram’s wife bore him no children; and she had an Egyptian handmaid whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Avram, “See, now, God has kept me from bearing, I pray thee, go into my maid, perhaps I shall be built through her.” And Avraham hearkened to the voice of Sarai. (Bereshith 16:1-2)
Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, the great fifteenth-century Spanish commentator, when commenting on Bereshith 16:2 is perplexed by Sarai’s suggestion: “Why did Sarai not ask for children as Rivka did (later on), if she recognized that it was He who denied them to her?” In other words, did Sarai not have enough trust and belief in God that she should become pregnant and bear a child to Avram? Was it not obvious that all the promises God gave to Avram that he would have a child and be progenitor of a nation, meant that Sarai would be the mother?
And I will make you a great nation; and I will make your seed as the dust of the earth. (Bereshith 15.5)
At the time of this promise, Sarai was Avram’s only wife and it would therefore be very reasonable to maintain that only she would be the mother of Avram’s child and future generations. So why did she ask Avram to marry Hagar?
Rabbi Yitzchak Arama argues that Sarai had very sound reasons for not invoking divine mercy. In referring to the verse (Bereshith 18:11), “It had ceased with Sarai to be after the manner with women,” he argues that it would have been a mistake for Sarai to beseech God to allow her to become pregnant since this would have involved the violation of the laws of nature. Sarai postmenopausal physiological condition made it impossible for her to have children unless an open miracle was performed. Based on the principle that ha-olam be-minhago holech (the world runs its course in a natural way, i.e. the laws of nature are created as a fixed reality), Sarai reasoned that asking God for pregnancy would be out of order. Miracles occur only when there is no alternative, but in Sarai’s mind there was a ready alternative in Hagar. Moreover, Hagar had been raised and educated by Sarai and therefore was, in many ways, her adopted child and pupil. This, reasoned Sarai, was enough to allow Avram to marry Hagar. The child born of this union would, for all intents and purposes, be Sarai’s child and would be educated to continue the great mission of Avram.
On a deeper level, it may be suggested that Sarai argued that for the Jewish people to be effective in the world, they had to be born within the boundaries of the laws of this world. The child had to be born in a natural way, without any surprising or unprecedented occurrences.
Avram, however, looked beyond. He had been informed that his progeny will have to represent the “beyond.” It will have to present the divine truth, and that truth is not entirely of this world.
And He (God) took him outside and said, “Look towards the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.” (Bereshith 15:5)
On this the Midrash comments:
Did He then lead him forth to the outside of the world… But He showed him the streets of heaven, He lifted him above the vault of the heaven, hence He says to him; “Habet,” Look now towards heaven, “Habet,’ signifying to look down from above. (Midrash Rabbah)
This Midrash clearly implies the metaphysical aspect of the nation to be born. Its root is above the normal and logical.
Only from a heavenly perspective can one understand the essence, the mission, and the most remarkable capacity of survival of the Jewish people. “Look toward heaven” implies the understanding that there is no end to heaven. The innumerable world “beyond” is the root where the foundation of Israel may be discovered. Avram is asked to elevate himself above the finite world.
For this reason Avram cannot agree with Sarai. He waits for the unprecedented, the unusual, and because of all this, he is convinced that Sarai may still become pregnant. More than that, because the nation of Israel must hold the potential to become a meta-historical people, it has to be born from the supernatural. It has to be born out of the unprecedented. Therefore, from this perspective, Sarai was the most obvious mother-to-be!
If so, why did Avram not refuse Sarai’s request to marry Hagar? The answer given by Ramban, who posed this question, is that this was only to give Sarai the satisfaction of fulfilling her maternal feelings, but Avram did not believe for one moment that Hagar was ever going to give birth to the child he was promised. (5) So Avram marries Hagar:
And Avram hearkened to the voice of Sarai; and Sarai, Avram’s wife took Hagar, the Egyptian, her maid…. And she gave her to Avram, her husband, to be his wife. (Bereshith 16:3)
Then an event happened that caused unexpected complications: “And when she (Hagar) saw she had conceived, her mistress lost value in her eyes.” (Bereshith 16:4) In describing her characteristics, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the name Hagar connotes being “bound in,” “restrained.” Hagar is therefore a “limited” woman with little insight into the spiritual and metaphysical world of Avram. She believes that her immediate pregnancy is a sign of personal divine favor and that therefore she, and not Sarai, is the truly righteous woman.
Hagar’s philosophy is simple. What she does not understand is that only through trial and hardship does one become a righteous and great personality. An easy life does not produce people of significance. This is the very reason why many women in the Torah suffer from the inability to conceive. Only after great effort and spiritual struggles do they give birth to children.
Hagar, however, is solely of this world and rooted in the natural, and therefore misreads her own story and that of Sarai. We may add that Hagar is a descendant of Cham, the father of Canaan and the second son of Noach. The Torah tells us that after emerging from the ark, Noach planted a vineyard and became “intoxicated” and “uncovered’ himself in his tent. Cham saw the “nakedness” of his father and reported the incident to his brothers, Shem and Yaphet (Bereshith 9:20-29). One can see in this incident a most important and illuminating fact. Cham, the “heated” one is the one who sees the world from an intoxicated position. He cannot see the deeper meaning of this life; neither does he see that man’s bodily appearance is only external and that the real man is within.
Hagar is, in many ways a descendant of Cham. She sees the world through Cham’s prism and therefore does not grasp Sarai’s trial and concomitant greatness. She identifies material success with divine approval, displaying no appreciation for the higher, heavenly world. Due to this perception, she looks down on Sarai.
Aware of the deep-rooted conflict, Avram gives Sarai carte blanche in her treatment of Hagar:
And Sarai said to Avram,…”I gave my maid unto your bosom and now that she has conceived, I have lost value in her eyes.”…Then Avram said to Sarai: “See, your maid in his your hand, do to her that which is good in your eyes.” Then Sarai afflicted her and she (Hagar) fled from before her. (Bereshith 16:5,6)
Ramban, in his careful reading of the text, makes a most remarkable, indeed, disturbing observation. Instead of trying to justify Sarai’s behavior, he condemns her for having mistreated Hagar:
Sarai, our mother, sinned in dealing harshly with her handmaid and Avram too, by allowing her to do so. (And therefore) God saw her affliction and gave her a son who was destined to be a lawless person who would bring suffering on the seed of Avram and Sarai with all kinds of afflictions. (emphasis mine)
What Ramban is telling us is not just that Sarai had violated the principles of general morality but that she profoundly misunderstood the situation that she herself had created. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:
What she (Sarai) had forgotten is that what she had wished was an impossible thing….. that a woman who had become a wife to Avram and a mother to his child could not, on the other hand, be a slave. Avram’s proximity and Avram’s spirit would break the feelings of slavery, would awaken the feeling of the equality of all human beings, would arouse the urge of freedom and break all chains. (7)
Taking this argument one stage further, we may suggest that Sarai had not only misunderstood the personality of Hagar, but above all she failed to realize that the child born from Avram’s union with Hagar could only be a highly complex personality.
Many of this child’s qualities were rooted in the spiritual world of Avram. But, at the same time, the child would also inherit many of the characteristics of Hagar; in other words, of Cham, the heated one. This inevitably created a most complex situation, with incredible tensions and contradictions, a child who would be pained by his inability to identify totally with either Avram’s world or Hagar’s world, always on the run, never at peace with himself. Sarai did not realize this: Yishmael was going to taste from the wellsprings of Avram’s world but would never be completely included in it because of the Chamite mentality. Sarai was playing with fire.
What would have happened if Sarai had allowed herself to properly care for and nurture Yishmael? It is most likely that his personality would have developed differently, having the strength to overcome the inherent tensions within his very being. Rabbi Hirsch postulates that the Arab nation would have become a great asset for the cause of the monotheistic and religious-ethical life and would have worked hand in hand with the people of Israel.
The nation descended from Avraham and Hagar is one half Jewish. God has given us, the Jewish nation, a mission, which has a dual Aspect. 1. Emunah, theoretical truth which we have to accept and which our minds are to develop. 2. The Law, the commandments which in a harmonious agreement with these truths form our whole life in accordance with the dictates of the divine Will. On the one aspect, the theoretical, the Arabic nation holds a high place in the ranks of mankind. It has developed the Arabic thoughts of God with such fine acuteness that the thoughts of the unity of God in the works of Jewish theological philosophers, as far as they are developed philosophically, rest predominantly on the works of Arabian writers. These have the emunah but not the mitzvoth. It is not sufficient to have spiritual thoughts of the unity of God, (but it must include) that practical submission of all forces and efforts (to daily life) and for that it is not sufficient only to be begotten and brought up by Avraham, for that one must be born from Sara. The specific people of Avraham is not given the mission to be the theological philosophical herald of the Unity of God, but lishmor derech Hashem la’asoth tzedaka u’mishpat, “to guard the way of God and do righteousness and justice” and that requires the submission of all one’s forces, and above all, all one’s sensuous forces, urges and impulses, that demands the dedication of the body. One only begins to be Jewish with the dedication of the body…(8)
Had Sarai cared for Yishmael, then the great Arab nation would have had an easier task in fulfilling itself in unprecedented ways, and history would have unfolded in a drastically different way.
Sarai’s treatment of Hagar left a permanent rift between the two women, even after Hagar returned home and gave birth to Yishmael (Bereshith 16). This sense of hurt and bitterness undoubtedly became imprinted in the mind of the child Yishmael who, thereafter, could only have felt a stranger in the home of Sarai. Somehow, these anti-Sarai feelings were nurtured over the many long years of Yishmael’s difficult life, until, as Ramban seems to suggest, they became a permanent mark on the soul of the descendants of Yishmael and developed into an unreasonable hatred for the children of Avraham and Sarai.
Ramban’s observation, however, is not without its problems. How does he reconcile his claim here that Sarai was wrong in afflicting Hagar and sending her away, while we read at a later stage (Bereshith 21:12) that God concurs with Sarai, telling Avraham to send Hagar and Yishmael away?
After the birth of Yitzchak, tensions intensify between Yishmael and his younger half-brother, reaching such a point, that once again, Sarai asks Avraham to “cast out that slave-woman and her son” (Bereshith 21:9). Avraham is greatly distressed, “for it concerned a son of his.” Clearly Avraham does not want to have a second tragedy. No father willingly spurns his own son, however wayward. He has learned from the past. Therefore, he refuses to act on Sarai’s wish until God indicates His own concurrence: Whatever Sarai tells you, listen to her voice” (Bereshith 21:9).
It appears, then, that Sarai is right after all. Sending Hagar away has God’s blessing! If in this instance Sarai is correct, then what was wrong in earlier forcing Hagar out of her house by afflicting her? Did God not further afflict Hagar by making Avraham send her and her son away?
The answer to this question is crystal clear. God tells Avraham that the first expulsion was wrong; it has wrought incredible damage. It has evoked in Hagar and Yishmael an eternal hatred. But one cannot turn the clock back. To keep Yishmael home after all that has happened will only add further complications. Now it is too late. What Avraham has to learn is that that there is no way back.
We may now begin to arrive at an understanding of our earlier dilemma, namely, why Avraham married Hagar at the end of his life. Avraham now realized the enormity of the injustice inflicted on Hagar. The afflictions that she suffered, and subsequently the second expulsion with Yishmael, her son, continued to torment Avraham. In setting his affairs in order before his death, he asks how he – the embodiment of kindness – could have permitted such a thing to occur. How can he meet his Maker without having resolved this problem of his own making? How can he do teshuva (repentance)?
Yitzchak clearly perceives his father’s anguish. He understands that this matter has the potential to become Avraham’s downfall. Everything that he had lived for, his devotion to chesed (kindness), his piety and all his great acts of righteousness are of little consequence as long as this one matter is not settled. Yitzchak’s suggestion that his father remarry his former wife Hagar, is therefore very understandable. By giving her a few more good years and granting her a happy family life and security, Avraham may be able to make amends, look himself in the face, and meet his Maker with equanimity.
It is therefore not surprising that, on the several occasions, Avraham sought out his son Yishmael and advised him whom to marry. However wayward, however unruly, Yishmael was still his son and entitled to Avraham’s support. (9)
While Hagar is in the desert after fleeing (the first time) from Sarai, God appears to her and reveals to her the qualities of the yet unborn child: “He will be like a Pere Adam” (Bereshith 16:12). The Rabbis struggle with the exact meaning of these last words. The classic translation reads: “a wild ass,” a most disturbing translation.
Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish debated this. Rabbi Yochanan said: It means that while all people are bred in civilized surroundings, he would be reared in the wilderness. Resh Lakish said: It means a savage among men, in its literal sense, for as all people plunder wealth, he plunders lives. (Bereshith Rabbah 35:9)
Rabbi Hirsch adds,” He will not just adam pere, a free man but he will be pere adam, the pere amongst mankind…such a race of men who do not bow their necks to the yoke of other men” (10) God continues,
His hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him, and in the face of all his brothers will he dwell. (Bereshith 16:12)
This could mean that he will stand up against his own brothers and cause instability in the Arab world. It may also refer to his constant struggles with the nations of the world. Da’at Sofrim on Bereshith 16:12 explains the prophecy further: “Although he will be a man with great potential, intellect and emotions, his hand will be against everybody, and everybody against him, and still: In the face of all his brothers he will dwell, i.e. he will honored by all nations.” Ramban expands the argument: “The subject pertains to his children, who will increase and they will have wars with all the nations.”
Such prophecies and interpretations do not imply that Yishmael has to become as described in these prophecies; neither do the earlier observations justify the Arab animosity toward Jews in our days or at any other time. The injustice of Sarah toward Yishmael cannot be used as a precedent for an ongoing hatred toward the children of Avraham and Sarah.
These observations and visions draw attention to the roots from where these feelings come. They indicate that these prophecies will come true if Yishmael will yield to these dispositions instead of fighting them. Man’s chief goal in life is to become human and to protect his humanity against these kinds of tendencies. Would Yishmael understand this and fight these inclinations, or redirect them, he could no doubt become a most eloquent and highly civilized man.
The above-quoted prophetic descriptions are made from a combination of dispositions that make up the personality of Yishmael. On the other hand, they are rooted in the world of Avraham, while on the other, they stem from the world of Cham.
Perseverance, courage, and independence are the very qualities that Avraham developed in order to fulfill his mission to bring all men to a recognition of God. Once, however, these qualities become misdirected and absorbed by the world of Cham, they start to serve external and physical purposes such as military power and willful stubbornness. The very propensity for domination found within the Arab world, harnessed to the vast financial resources at its disposal, is the result of the qualities inherent in Avraham’s spiritual mission becoming misdirected. When these qualities are used for earthly causes, as is the case with the Chamite philosophy, they become dangerous and destructive. The Arab will to dominate, with its bold, daring (and often self-destructive) courage, when combined with autonomous philosophies, are therefore basically misdirected qualities inherited from Avraham.
At this point it would be pertinent to investigate another feature of our global question. From the above verses it can be clearly deduced that the descendants of Yishmael would like to dominate the world and create an independent world power. We make ask how one ever becomes a world-dominating power. In other words, how does one “possess” the world? What are the ways in which to seize the very powers by which this world is set in motion?
Jewish tradition believes that this is accomplished by possessing the land of Israel, and specifically, Jerusalem. Jerusalem we are told, is built on the even shetiah, the foundation stone. The Talmud, in Yoma 54b, states that it was called so because “from it the world was founded” Rashi, in his commentary to this statement, adds, “Zion was first created, and then around it other clods and rock formations, continents were formed until the earth was complete.”
Ramban, commenting on the first verse of the Torah and reflecting kabbalistic teachings, writes, “Jerusalem is the preeminent place, for the life of the world starts there, its potential is developed therein, its climates and species of all orders appear in it.”
Jerusalem is seen, therefore, as the root of all places. The land of Israel, the first extension of Jerusalem, is the soul of the world. It is the Holy Land – set apart and sanctified from the rest of the world. It is the world in microcosm in which all the components of the greater world are represented. It is the kav emtza’i, the medium line, the “inner, spiritual bolt that contains everything that connects all points of the world among themselves to the original point.” (11)
This is the reason the nations of the world have always maintained their focus on Jerusalem and Israel. Subconsciously, they have been aware that, somehow, possession of this city and this land meant “controlling” the world. The essence of this world is virtually contained in Jerusalem. Obviously, this means that Jerusalem and Israel are the center of this world in the spiritual sense. It is from there that the teachings of the Torah will come and transform the world. However, the many nations that once occupied the land of Israel translated this inner knowledge into terms of purely physical occupations, without understanding the spiritual implications.
In the case of the Arab nations, this matter is even more apparent. As children of Avraham, the status and “ownership” of the land of Israel becomes a matter of crucial importance. Their longing for this land is not just bound up with their ambition to become a world power like other nations of the world. It is the consequence of Avraham’s mission to transform that makes the impetus to possess this land so powerful. As explained above, it is this mission, albeit misdirected by Chamite influence, that makes the Arab world seek ways to “inherit” the land and overpower the world. It is this matter that makes the Israeli-Arab conflict so complex.
What are the conditions by which one can permanently hold on to, and secure, the land of Israel, and thereby really “inherit” it? Such a matter is not decided on the basis of history or political force alone.
According to biblical thought, it will depend greatly on the spiritual and moral condition of the “occupier.” The land itself, being the center of the world, is like Jerusalem, also called Sha’ar Shamayim (the gateway to heaven). Jerusalem is a heavenly city. It is the city where the Sanctuary is found with the Holy of Holies, in which there is no time and space limitation; it is lemaa’ala min ha-teva (beyond the laws of nature). It is heaven reflected in earthly conditions. Consequently, only a nation that is rooted in, and living by, the “norms” of heaven will be capable of possessing this land and this city.
Discussing the mitzvah (commandment) of olei regel, or going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals in the Temple, the Torah states, “No man will covet your land when you ascend to appear before the Lord three times a year” (Shemoth 34:24). The implication of this unusual verse is that while all Jews go the Temple on Pesach, Shavuoth and Succoth, the borders of the land of Israel may be in grave danger. It would be an open invitation for the enemies of Israel to cross the borders and force the people of Israel out of their homeland. Nevertheless, the Torah avers that not only will the enemies not enter the land but they would not even consider making such a move. This is a most extraordinary and unnatural promise and against our general experience. Why should they not consider such an option? Why would they not even consider coveting the land?
According to our observations, we may understand what the Torah is driving at. When the Jews ascend to “appear before the Lord ” namely, when their lives are built on the principles that the Temple represents, only then will it be clear and undisputed who holds the title to this land. When Israel views its national life from beyond and is fully aware of, and lives up to its great mission, it will experience peace on its borders. This land can only be owned by those whose lives are in accordance with its spiritual nature. Otherwise other nations will claim it. The moment, however, that the spiritual standards of the Land of Israel are met, other nations will no longer aspire to possess it.
This, then, is the great prophecy behind the above verse: Only the people of Israel, adhering to the Torah of Israel, hold title to the land of Israel. This may quite well be the biblical message behind the Israeli-Arab conflict.