Human RightsVayishlach

Vayishlach 5769 — Brotherly love ?

Jacob_esau In this week’s Torah reading, Yakov (Jacob) is reunited with his brother Esau. Despite the fact that they were brothers—or perhaps it’s BECAUSE of the fact that they were brothers—Yakov is afraid for his life. He’s afraid that at this fateful family reunion, Esau is going to try and harm him.

What happens when the much anticipated reunion occurs? The Torah tells us  וַיָּרָץ עֵשָו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ וַיִּפּל עַל-צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.”

Despite the plain meaning of the verse, Midrash Tanchuma says the reason Esau cried is because Esau wanted to bite Yakov on the neck, but Yakov’s neck turned to marble, so Esau hurt his teeth and cried. Yakov cried because he was afraid Esau was going to bite him. Tanchuma even brings proof texts: Jacob’s neck turned to marble, as in a verse from Song of Songs: “Your neck is as a tower of marble.” Esau’s broken teeth are predicted in Psalm 3: “You have broken the teeth of the wicked.”

 Why does the midrash paint Esau in such a negative light? Likely because Esau is Edom, which came to be associated with Rome, and Rome with Christianity. Tanchuma is a late midrash – post-Talmudic, so it was likely written during a time of Christian persecution. Perhaps it would have been hard for the author to find nice things to say about Christians.

Nowadays, however, in the wake of Vatican II and evangelical support for Israel, throughout Christendom, relations between Christians and Jews are generally good and improving. Yakov and Esau have had a peaceful reconciliation at last. So we would not be so likely to cast aspersions at Christians. But what about our other cousins? What about Muslims?


Unfortunately relations between the descendants of Yakov, and the descendants of Yakov’s uncle Ishmael are not so good. Ishamel, brother of Yitzchak (Isaac), is considered by both Jews and Muslims to be the ancestor of the Muslims.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a conference sponsored by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel on the theme of “Teaching Islam to Jews and Judaism to Muslims.” At the conference, Rabbi Ron Kronish, head of ICCI, said “We believe that if there will be more knowledge about Islam among Jews and if Israeli Muslims know more about Judaism this would have a positive effect on social relations.” Not surprisingly, one speaker said that Arab Muslims in Israel know a lot more about Jewish culture than Jews know about Islam or Arab culture.

I agree with Rabbi Kronish. I believe the more we know about each other’s religions, the more progress we can make toward peace. For one thing, we can learn use religion as a way to come together, instead of as a way to sow hatred. For the truth is, if you look at the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Judaism and Islam are very similar – Christianity is the “odd man out” with the greatest variation from the other two. So to further that goal, this morning we’re not only going to study some Torah – we’re going to study some Koran.

The first similarity that even a casual examination yields is in language. Since Arabic is a Semitic language as is Hebrew, it should come as no surprise that we share many of the same words. A few examples:

Arabic = translation = Hebrew = translation

Abd = servant = eved = slave

Amin = trustworthy = emunah = faith

Al-Kitab = the book, the Koran = catav = writing

Allah = God = El = God (Elohim)

Rachman = compassionate = rachamim = compassionate

Amr=decree = amar = spoke

Jahannam = Hell = Gehinnom = Hell

Khatimah = seal, Muhammad’s prophethood = khatimah = seal or signature

Mala’ikah = angels = malakh = angel

Tsadaka = charity = tsadaka = charity, righteousness

But far more than similar terminology, Judaism and Islam share a very similar theology—very similar beliefs about the nature of God and what’s more, the role of religion. Muslims believe that all the prophets we consider prophets, especially Moses, were prophets. They also believe that Jesus was a prophet, but not divine. From the Islamic perspective, Mohammed came to expand the audience for the message of the one God, and to correct what they believe to be deviations from the true text or true story. So for example, the Muslims also believe that Avraham bound one of his sons on an altar. The Koran just says Avraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) bound one of his sons, but it doesn’t say which one. Mainstream Muslim thought now considers the bound son to be Ishmael, but you can find medieval Muslim scholars claiming it could have been either, or even that it was Yitzchak.  The Muslims just recently celebrated the feast of Eid al-Adha which commemorates the binding of Abraham’s son on the altar.  Jews, of course, acknowledge the same event on our religious calendar on the feast day of Rosh Hashanah when we read of the binding of Isaac in the Torah reading.

Jews and Muslims both share a firm belief that the essence of the universe is the oneness of God. We both reject Christian notions of God incarnate in human form. I’m going to share two sources and I challenge you to tell me which is the Jewish source and which is the Islamic source.

Source #1: “It is the most basic of basic principles and a support for wisdom to know that there is something [namely God] that existed before anything else did and that He created everything that there is. Everything in the skies, on the ground and in between exists only because of the fact that He created them. Let it be known that if the Creator did not exist then nothing else would, for nothing can exist independently of the Creator. Let it further be known that if everything ceased to exist, the Creator alone would exist and would not have ceased to exist like everything else had. All things in creation are dependent upon the Creator for their continued existence, but He does not need any of them [for His continued existence]. Therefore, the reality of His existence is not like the reality of the existence of any creation.”

Source #2: “God is one; He has no partners; Singular without any like Him; Uniform, having no contrary; Separate, having no equal; Ancient, having no first; Eternal, having no beginning; Everlasting, having no end; Ever-existing, without termination; Perpetual and constant, with neither interruption nor ending.”

Source #1 was Maimonides, the great rabbi of the 11th century. Source #2 is a description of the Sunni Muslim conception of God from a book on Islam. Yet they describe very much the same God.

Our similarities extend beyond belief to practice. Judaism has a system called halakha that is designed to regulate our conduct. A common categorization of the mitzvot (commandments) is between those that are “bein Adam l’makom,” between man and God, and those that are “bein Adam l’chavero,” between people. Islam has a similar system, called sha’riah, which also is divided into laws regulating conduct between man and God, and those regulating conduct between people. Both Judaism and Islam have dietary restrictions—as is well known, neither group eats pork, and both require slaughter to be performed in a certain way, with a blessing. Muslims pray five times a day; Jews also have five obligatory prayers a day: the Shema twice a day, and the Amidah three times a day. Muslims and Jews are both commanded to give charity and to take care of the poor, especially widows and orphans.

The Ten Commandments can be found in the Koran as well as in the Torah – they are not organized in one section like the Ten Commandments, but the concepts are all there.

(Thanks to where I found the listing of the Koranic sources for the Ten Commandments).






I am the Lord Your God


He is the one God (28:70)


You shall have no other Gods before Me


There is no other god beside GOD (47:19)


Do not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain


Do not subject GOD’s name to your casual swearing, that you may appear   righteous, pious, or to attain credibility among the people. (2:224)


Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.


O you who believe, when the Congregational Prayer (Salat Al-Jumu`ah) is announced on Friday, you shall hasten to the commemoration of GOD, and drop all business. . (62:9)


Honor your father and your mother; that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.


….and your parents shall be honored.   As long as one or both   of them live, you shall never   say to them, “Uff” (the   slightest gesture of annoyance), nor   shall you shout at them; you shall treat them amicably. (17:23)


You shall not kill.


…anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people. (5:32)


You shall not commit adultery.


You shall not commit adultery; it is a gross sin, and an evil behavior. (17:32)


You shall not steal.


The thief, male or female, you shall mark their hands as a punishment for their crime, and to serve as an example from GOD. GOD is Almighty, Most Wise. (5:38 – 39)


You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.



O you who believe, you shall be absolutely equitable, and observe GOD, when you serve as witnesses, even against yourselves, or   your parents, or your relatives.


You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbor’s.


And do not covet what we bestowed upon any other people. Such are temporary ornaments of this life, whereby we put them to the test. What your Lord provides for you is far better, and everlasting.[20:131]


As you can see, there are many similarities between Judaism and Islam. A few years ago when I was serving as a congregational rabbi in Toledo, Ohio, I gave a lecture on Judaism at the main mosque in Toledo. A couple of hundred people stayed to hear my hour-long talk, they had a lot of good questions. Yet at the end of the presentation, there was one question that stumped me: “If our religions are so similar, why do we have so many problems?”

Now I suspect some people may be thinking, OK, there are lots of similarities, but maybe the problems come from those verses in the Koran that call Jews the “sons of pigs and monkeys,” who distorted God’s teachings, and have been cursed and are inheritors of Hell?

Of course we have some ugly passages in the Torah as well, that can be tough to explain; like when we went to war against Midian, and Moses commanded “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying with him.” Or “Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it.” Or the politically incorrect these days “And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and live in it; for I have given you the land to possess it. And you shall divide the land by lot for an inheritance among your families.”

Both the Koran and the Torah contain hateful war-like messages. A Torah of Hate and a Koran of Hate.

But, thank God, neither of those teachings is the whole story. There is also a Torah of Love and Koran of Love.

In the Torah we have our well known teachings like “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “there shall be one law for the citizen and the resident alike.”

The Korah wisely points out that not everyone of a different faith is alike. It teaches “Not all of them are alike: of the People of the book are a portion that stand (for the right); they rehearse the signs of Allah all night long and then prostrate themselves in adoration. They believe in Allah and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong; and they (hasten in emulation) in (all) good works; they are in the ranks of the righteous. Of the good that they do nothing will be rejected of them; for Allah knoweth well those that do right.”

As fellow descendants of Abraham, we are included in another teaching from the Koran “Who is better guided in his religion than one who submits totally to GOD, leads a righteous life, according to the creed of Abraham: monotheism? GOD has chosen Abraham as a beloved friend.”

The Koran shares with Judaism the universalistic notion that we were all created from Adam and Eve and should act accordingly: “Mankind! We created you from a single (pair) Of a male and a female, And made you into nations and tribes, that Ye may know each other (Not that ye may despise each other).”

Just as Judaism has a written Torah – the Torah – and an oral Torah, the Talmud – Islam has the written Torah from Mohammed, the Koran, and a record of sayings attributed to him, an “oral Koran” so to speak called the Hadiths. In the hadiths we find teachings against killing women and children – which would certainly preclude most acts of terrorism. One hadith states: “It is narrated on the authority of Abdullah that a woman was found killed in one of the battles fought by the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him). He disapproved of the killing of women and children.” And the other says “It is narrated by Ibn Umar that a woman was found killed in one of the battles; so the Messenger of Allah (may be peace be upon him) forbade the killing of women and children.”

Yes, sadly there are Muslims who are terrorists on a large scale, bent on hate and destruction, as we witnessed tragically in the recent events in Mumbai. And there are Jews who shoot and harass Palestinians, as we recently witnessed the violence in Hebron. (NOTE: Even though I refer to those two events in the same paragraph, I am in no way saying they are equivalent! When I presented this d’var Torah, a few people came unglued because they thought I was comparing the two. I’m not. But we can’t ignore the fact that there are also Jewish terrorists, and the ongoing Occupation of the West Bank, and situation in Gaza causes a lot of suffering to many Palestinians. Not as much death and destruction as has been caused by Muslim terrorists, but we are not in a contest to measure suffering here.)

A very important thing to remember is that there are also Muslims who condemn terrorism. The headlines from Mumbai about the terrorists were all front page news; buried in the back of the paper was the news that Muslims in Mumbai organized a demonstration after the attacks proclaiming very publicly that Islam opposes terrorism. Just as there are Rabbis for Human Rights, there is now a group called Imams for Human Rights.  And Jewish terrorists are immediately condemned by large numbers of Jews, including our prime minister (see my post on Olmert from a few days ago, which you can read here) and the guy who was shooting at Palestinians in Hebron is at least under house arrest.

I don’t think there is much point in arguing over whose terrorists are worse or whose peace lovers are more numerous. The important point is that moderate peace loving Jews should join forces with moderate peace loving Muslims. For Jews to condemn suicide bombers and Muslims to condemn violent settlers does little to help bring peace closer. We each have to work to get our own houses in order. Jews need to condemn violent settlers and to seek an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the conflict in Gaza, and Muslims need to condemn those who would kill innocent people in the name of Islam.

I believe the more Jews and Muslims know about each other, the likelier we are to see the common ground and the humanity in the other.  The likelier we are to find real peace. In Jerusalem organizations like the Interfaith Encounter Association and the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel provide frequent opportunities to learn with and interact with Muslims.

The midrash about Esau crying because Jacob’s neck was marble is not the only way to read the story in this week’s parsha. HaEmek Davar, a 19th c. Lithuanian commentator said “Both wept, implying that Jacob’s love too was aroused towards Esau. And so it is in all ages. Whenever the seed of Esau is prompted by sincere motives to acknowledge and respect the seed of Israel, then we too, are moved to acknowledge Esau: for he is our brother. As a parallel we may cite the true friendship that existed between Rabbi Judah Hanasi and the Roman emperor Antoninus, and there are many similar instances.”

And the verse in the Koran about Jews being the sons of pigs and monkeys is also not the full story: the verse is specifically talking about Jews who spurn Jewish law, who do not follow their own Torah.

In these trying times, Yakov and Esau – Jews and Gentiles – are both weeping and crying out for peace. May God’s compassion be aroused and may the Holy One help us find a way to peace and reconciliation with our neighbors and cousins.


Rav Barry

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.

7 thoughts on “Vayishlach 5769 — Brotherly love ?

  • I am a mislim (but not from the middle east) Since christians use the Old Testament–I had assumed that the way they interpret it was the way Judaism also interpreted it–It was when I happened to research Judaism in connection to certain concepts in the Quran that I began to realize exactly how close we actually were!!!exactly like you described. (… christinaity is actully the odd man out…) Some concepts similar in Quran and Torah—Nafs/Nefesh, Ruh/Ruach, Ruh-al-Qudus/Ruach HaKodesh, Sakina/Shechina….etc

    this is from the Quran –Surah 112

    In the name of God, most compassionate, most merciful
    1. say: He is God, the One
    2. God, the eternal, absolute,
    3. He begets not, nor is he begotten
    4. And there is none like unto him.

    We are truly brothers in faith —honoring the same God. If we could only see that…..

  • Hello Kay,

    Thanks for your comment, and thanks especially for the additional similarities between Judaism and Islam, I will definitely add them next time I have occasion to teach Islam to Jews!

    Rav Barry

  • Thankyou for your reply—but thankyou especially for your original post as it gave me an opportunity to learn more about Judaism. I have found an online Torah that has the hebrew transliteration and the translation into English. But it has very little commentary—Do you know of any translations of the Torah with commentary (explaining the Jewish perspective /interpretation of Torah)? The Koran has the Tafsir (commentary /midrash) and some translations such as that of Yusuf Ali comes with the tafsir making it easier to put the verses in context.
    —I had been debating buying the “Torah for dummies” book–but wasn’t sure if it was any good–or if it reflected the Jewish perspective.

    “Innocent until proven guilty” —Our modern Judicial systems are based on this concept. —A concept that seems far more Judeo-Islamic than Christian. Since neither Judaism nor Islam interpret the story of (Prophet) Adam (pbuh) as that of “original sin”.

    I did want to mention a very minor point if it is OK, — I think we muslims do not really consider Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) as the “author” of the Quran, He never wrote anything–he simply recited the verses—others either memorized it or wrote it down (—the Quran we have today was put together during Caliph Uthmans time) From the muslim perspective the Quran is a revelation and the Torah is a previous revelation.
    (The definition of a “believer” is ….
    Surah 2 verses 1 to 4
    In the name of God, most compassionate, most merciful
    2. This is the book, in it is guidance sure without doubt.
    To those who have awe of God
    3. Who believe in the unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what we have provided for them
    4. And who believe in revelation
    sent to you
    and sent before your time
    and have (in their hearts) the assurance of the hereafter.

  • Dear Rav Barry —

    First, apologies for catching up with your post so late, I was away for a conference.. I am now settled in Paris, at least for the coming few months.

    I very much enjoyed this entry, as always. Perhaps more than usual, too!

    Amusingly enough, I was also at the ICCI conference on “Teaching Islam to Jews and Judaism to Muslims in Israel”!!
    I wasn’t very impressed though – the whole thing seemed to me as rehashing the obvious. Of course, learning more about the faith is interesting and potentially useful in terms of society-building.
    But I left feeling that the conference was a tad off target. Put it this way – learning more about the Quran won’t make your average Israeli like Arabs any more – and vice versa. The real learning process should be ‘teaching muslims to jews, and jews to muslims’ — go beyond the text to learn how the other community (communities?) actually live their day to day lives…
    In a sense, I am juxtaposing “knowing what yom kippur is actually about” vs. “knowing what yom kippur means to the Jews”.

    Regarding the oft asked question of why muslims don’t condemn islamist terrorism more vigorously.. well, that’s easy: they are not concerned. In the early nineties, when Egypt suffered from a wave of terrorist attacks and political assassinations, there was more public condemnation that you would imagine. There was real, widespread, barely controllable social anger.
    But it is human nature to worry less about what happens outside of their lives. The reason why there are demonstrations marching in New York and not in Cairo – is because Sept.11 took place in New York, not in Cairo.
    It’s not that they agree, even tacitly, or that they’re evil: they’re just not concerned. It’s quite simple, really.

    On a final note – allow me to disagree with a detail – the Quran version of Avraham and his son’s slaughter does specify that it was Ismail: “And Ismail said, “Father, do what you are ordered; you will find me among the Patient ones”

    I look forward to reading the next posts!

    Warm regards from Paris,

  • By the way – I just noticed the link on the left sidebar.
    You honour and flatter me. 🙂

  • Mohamed,

    Thanks for the comments!

    I’m a rabbi, not an imam, so it may be just slightly “chutzpadik” for me to debate this point with someone named Mohamed! But…if you look in the Quran, I do not believe you will see the verse as “And Ismail said.”

    According to my translation — perhaps you could look it up in the Arabic in the original — verse 37:102 reads “[37:102] When he grew enough to work with him, he said, “My son, I see in a dream that I am sacrificing you. What do you think?” He said, “O my father, do what you are commanded to do. You will find me, GOD willing, patient.” It does not say Ismail at all in that passage. There is also nothing in the preceding verses that says Ismail; it simply says “his son.”

    There is an interesting article that brings sources on this point at Islamic Awareness:

  • Further to Mohamed’s comments, I agree that the personal context is more important than the religious context, but understanding the religious context can often help open a door to discuss the personal side as well.

    Your comment about people not caring is no doubt accurate. I have also been surprised that there has not been a lot more uproar in the Muslim world about all the terrorism in Iraq, which is all between Muslims. Yet if it’s not in their own backyard, so to speak, no one worries about it…


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