Vaytetze 5767 — Roots of Intolerance

Idol Would the world be better off without religion?

I have secular friends who look at what’s going on in the world around us – Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims killing each other in Iraq, Jews and Muslims killing each other in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, riots breaking out and people losing their lives over some cartoons, demonstrations against the Pope – and they ask me whether we wouldn’t be better off without religion.

They cite historical battles where religion played a role – from the Islamic conquest of the 7th century to the Crusades to Israel’s War of Independence and they see religion as the cause for centuries of strife and bloodshed.

The Biblical roots of religious strife are found in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze.  This week we read the story of how Jacob left home to seek a wife.  After working for his father-in-law, Laban, for 20 years Jacob decided it was time to head home.  Laban had treated him unscrupulously in the past, so Jacob didn’t trust him – and he decided to leave in the middle of night without telling Laban.  Jacob’s wife Rachel, fired up with righteous indignation after her conversion to the religion of the one God, steals her father’s idols on the way out.  Rashi says she was motivated by her religious beliefs – he tells us she was trying to get her father to give up idol worship.

When Laban discovers his daughter, grandkids, and idols missing, he chases after them.  When he catches up, after chastising Jacob for sneaking off, he asks “And now, that you are surely gone, because you so long after your father’s house, why have you stolen my gods?”

Not knowing that his beloved Rachel was the culprit, Jacob tells Laban “With whom you will find your gods, let him not live.”

In this particular case, disaster is narrowly averted through Rachel’s ingenuity.  But the episode marks the first time in the Torah’s narrative that a lack of religious tolerance has potentially fatal consequences.  It wasn’t the last.

The Katav Sofer cautions against using Rachel as a role model.  He brings a teaching from Midrash Rabbah that says God did not create women from Adam’s hand so that she should not be “light-fingered” – yet Rachel stole her father’s idols.  He points out despite Rachel’s seemingly good intentions, she did not foresee the possible desecration of God’s name that could result from her actions.  People who are religiously intolerant pretty much NEVER see the potential negative consequences of their actions.

Despite the struggles in the world that seem to be rooted in religion, people of faith know that the world is vastly better off because of religion.  People don’t need religion to make war.  The vast majority of the world’s empires had no particular religious motivation—the Babylonian, Greek, Persian, Roman, and British (and some would add “American”) empires were all motivated by economics, not by theology.  The Communists were as anti-religious as they come, yet they were brutal in forcing their ideology on others.

The Torah, the Bible, tells us יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו the inclinations of man’s heart is evil from his youth.  Unfortunately men don’t need to be trained to be violent, they don’t need religion to go to war.  Religion is sometimes used as a fig leaf or an excuse for people who want to go to war for social, economic, or political reasons.  In Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler wrote: "…I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s Work.”  Yet no one seriously believes that Hitler was motivated by religion.

The same is true for Muslims yelling “kill the Jews” or for Shiite and Sunni Muslims killing each other in Iraq.  Religion is an excuse – “kill the infidels and heretics” – but what’s happening is tribal warfare that has very little to do with religion.

To the contrary, religion is a force that works to help man conquer and channel his wicked inclination in positive directions.  Ten people killed by a religious terrorist makes for a juicier headline than a hundred people saved by a religious soup kitchen.  Hence the bad press.

And nowhere does religion try to stem our wicked inclination more than in the realm of war and fighting.  All religions teach that God does not want us to kill one another – God wants us to love one another.  The 15th c. Spanish rabbi Abarbanel explains the verse in Deuteronomy which tells us to "walk in God’s ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9), as meaning God does not desire death or the destruction of the world but repentance. God extends Her right hand to welcome the penitent, and that includes mortal kings and other people.

Peace is one of the central values of Judaism.  We greet each other with the Hebrew word “Shalom,” which means peace.  We pray for peace three times a day, every day.  Shalom is another version of the word shalem, which means complete or whole; we are incomplete if we do not have peace.  Our holiest place, Jerusalem, Yerushalayim in Hebrew, means “city of peace.”  God’s wish, God’s blessing, is peace.  The Talmud (Megilah 18a) says the blessing of the Holy One, blessed be He, is peace, as it says, “The Lord shall bless his people with peace.”

In Leviticus 26:6 God promises וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ וּשְׁכַבְתֶּם וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד
And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid;

Too many people all over the world are afraid to lie down for fear bombs will fall on their heads.

Peace means not just peace within our own homes or within the Jewish community, but peace amongst ALL peoples.  In Deuteronomy God commands us “Love you therefore the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

That phrase, or a variation on it, appears in the Torah again and again.  Having been strangers, outsiders, oppressed, we are charged with being kind and compassionate, to not allow that kind of treatment to happen to other people.

Treating others poorly happens when we forget that we are all brothers.  The Talmud teaches that Man was created alone – from Adam – so that no one can say to his fellow “my father was greater than yours.”  We all share the same father.  Recent scientific studies have shown that you only have to go back a few thousand years to find a common ancestor for all mankind – we truly are all related to each other, we truly are all cousins.

Peace is more than something God wants – it is the essence of God Himself.  The Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, teaches “God is also called “peace”; He is peace, His name is peace, and all is bound together in peace. “

Psalm 50:2 says “Out of Zion the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.”  The Zohar explains God’s shining forth as the light which, when once it shines, will shine for all the worlds. When that light will awaken, the whole will be one common fellowship, under the reign of universal love and universal peace. There will be peace in heaven and peace on earth. So Scripture says: “Peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces (Psalm, 122:7).”

We cannot sit and passively wait for peace to happen; in Psalm 34 we are charged, “bikash shalom v’rodfahu,” Seek peace and pursue it.

And how do we pursue that peace?  Abarbanel tell us that it is preferable to seek peace diplomatically than militarily—he tells us “Have we not seen
the many fall to the few or the strong to the weak?…Therefore it is appropriate to choose true peace rather than to trust in a doubtful victory.”

In the last few days we have seen signs of great promise in Israel – the Israelis and Palestinians seem to be agreeing with Abarbanel, that it is better to seek peace diplomatically than militarily.

On Sunday a cease-fire went into effect between Israel and all of the major Palestinian terror organizations; the cease-fire even has the support of exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, which is crucial in making it stick.  Meshal first said he would give the ceasefire six months to make progress toward a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, and he later said six months was not a firm deadline, he might even give it eight or ten months.  But it is quite significant that he was willing to say he’d accept a state within the ’67 borders.  As reported in one of the Israeli papers, Yediot Achronot, the Israeli military has real reservations about the ceasefire — they are concerned it will simply advance the interests of the Palestinians.

But more than just a ceasefire, on Monday, November 27 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave a major policy speech in which he said he was willing to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to discuss a real and lasting peace.  Olmert said "If a new Palestinian government is established — a government which will be committed to the principles of the Quartet, implement the (U.S.-drafted) roadmap and bring about the release of Gilad Shalit, I will invite Abu-Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) to meet with me immediately, in order to conduct a real, open, genuine and serious dialogue between us."  Olmert offered releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit.  He said Israel will "significantly diminish roadblocks, increase freedom of movement in the territories, facilitate movement of people and goods in both directions, improve the operation of the border crossings to the Gaza Strip, and release Palestinian funds for the purpose of alleviating the humanitarian hardship which many of you suffer."  He welcomed the Saudi initiative of 2002 and said he would be willing to work with the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians and others who want to support the direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

How are we supposed to react to this news?  The Israeli media is mixed.  The left leaning Haaretz says “Olmert deserves praise for his decision to embark on a political initiative.”  The right-leaning Jerusalem Post says “our cities are doomed and our citizens condemned to keep living under the growing threat of rocket fire from both the north and the south, until we recover our senses and return to our neglected culture of military resolve.”  Sentiments are similar in the blog world; some, like Vital Perspective, express skepticism: "While there may be some diplomatic progress through the ceasefire, we should not get our hopes up for a lasting peace and the fulfillment of the two-state solution until those preconditions are met."

Personally, I’m afraid to feel optimistic.  I desperately want to feel optimistic—in seven months or so, God willing, my family and I will be citizens of Israel.  Obviously I want to live in an Israel that is at peace with her neighbors.  But I remember back to August/September 2000 — when we were living in Israel.  When we arrived in July 2000 peace was in the air, everyone could practically taste it.  Clinton had been meeting with Arafat and Barak, it looked like a deal was imminent — and then those hopes were crushed when the negotiations fell apart and the Palestinians responded with the 2nd Intifada.  On July 26, 2000, we heard the talks had fallen apart; the director of Ulpan Akiva where I had been studying said that for the first time he is not optimistic about the prospects for peace. He felt the failure of the talks was something "chasuv m’od," very important, with serious consequences."  At the time it was depressing to hear that a knowledgeable Israeli like him, who was optimistic through all sort of other problems, through the Lebanon war, and through the Intifada, had become pessimisstic.  And of course he was very right.  Ever since then, it’s been hard for me to feel much optimism.  Especially given that we’ve had ceasefires since then, we’ve had the Roadmap since then, we’ve had the Geneva Initiative since then, we’ve had Saudi peace proposals since then, and nothing has changed.

But what’s the solution? Those who say we should simply return to our culture of “military resolve” are dangerously arrogant.  You would have thought that such arrogance would have been put to rest by the most recent war in Lebanon, where Israel’s military might failed to destroy Hezbollah.  Wars are generally started by people who are arrogant.  The Talmud warns “the sin of arrogance is equivalent to all [the others] whereas of the humble it is written, But the humble shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in the abundance of peace (Psalm 39:11)”

We can arrogantly insist that we are only seeking justice.  But the Talmud points to a tension between justice and peace.  The Talmud brings the verse “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.”  The Talmud points out, “surely where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice!”  Where there is strict justice there is no peace because no one accepts it.  If God Himself were to come down and tell us what would be the just solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides would probably reject it because they didn’t get what they wanted.  The Talmud continues and asks “But what is that kind of justice with which peace abides? The one which is arrived at through negotiation and compromise.”

So, let us remember that even if it’s temporary, a ceasefire and negotiation is better than continued fighting.  In the long run, lasting peace will not come militarily — it will only come through negotiation.  We will never be able to bomb and shell every last terrorist out of existence.  This is a different kind of war.

So as tired as we may be of the merry-go-round, there really is little choice but to do what Ehud Olmert is doing, to reach out a hand in peace, to hope that this time the Palestinians are going to be able to get their act together, to pray that both sides will have the courage to take the difficult steps and concessions needed for both peoples to be able to get on with their lives
We can’t give up on our hopes and dreams.  The Talmud tells us we should never give up on the search for peace.  There is a proverb which says “A man should pray for peace even to the last clod of earth [thrown upon his grave].”

May the Holy One bless the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority with the strength and courage to reach the peace that abides together with justice, a peace arrived at through negotiation and compromise.

Reb Barry

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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