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November 27, 2015

A Renewed Hope (Parashat Vayishlach)

Maurice A. Salth

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Thirty-eight years ago on November 19, 1977 a plane carrying the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. A week earlier, President Sadat announced to his own parliament “Israel will be stunned to hear me tell you that I am ready to go to the ends of the earth, even to their home, to the Knesset, itself, to argue with them, in order to prevent one Egyptian soldier from being wounded.”

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin seized upon Sadat’s words and crafted in Arabic a welcoming response from Begin to Sadat to be aired on radio and television. Begin assured the Egyptian people a reception worthy of their president’s stature and most dramatically, Begin stated “let us give a silent oath to one another: no more war, no more bloodshed, no more threats. Let us make peace. Let us start on the path of friendship.”

Begin confided privately to his advisor, Yehuda Avner, who chronicled this chapter of history in his memoir The Prime Ministers, “after all the years of my being slandered and vilified as a warmonger and a terrorist, I am the one Sadat has chosen to visit.”

Sadat’s plane landed exactly at 8 pm on a Saturday evening, three hours after Shabbat had ended. Prime Minister Begin along with hundreds of dignitaries, troops and reporters were there to greet him on the tarmac. Egyptian and Israeli flags were everywhere and Begin himself stood at the foot of the stairs that led to Sadat’s aircraft.

And then mysteriously, the plane’s door didn’t open. Seconds led to minutes of waiting. Excitement soon led to discomfort. Avner writes that Begin’s chief of staff, General Motta Gur, had publically commented that Sadat’s visit might actually be a ruse to start another war. Avner himself worried that Egyptian commandos might be actually poised behind the plane’s door readying themselves to murder the Israeli cabinet.

This is what happens, these are the thoughts that run through one’s mind after years and years of fighting and loss and distrust, even hatred.

During this long wait, Begin stood firmly at the foot of the ramp looking up at the sealed door with no hint of concern. He knew what had led him to this day and for that matter Sadat as well.

When the door did open, a disorderly throng of journalists rushed through it, ran down the ramp and took positions in order to report and take pictures. Then the doorway was dark until Sadat’s tall and handsome frame stood within it. He slowly descended the stairs where Begin formally greeted him and introduced him to his cabinet as trumpets blared and cameras flashed and press crushed around them.

When Sadat came face to face with the chief of staff Sadat said to him, smiling, “See General, it is no trick, I was not bluffing.” And General Gur responded respectfully with a formal military salute.

Then Sadat stood face to face with former Prime Minster Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister during too many previous wars between Egypt and Israel. They looked at each other seriously and Sadat bowed and took her hand and said to her “I have wanted to talk to you for a long time.” Meir responded, and I have been waiting for you for a long time. Sadat replied, “but now, I am here.” And Meir said “Shalom, welcome.”

This week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach, specifically Genesis chapter 32:4-33:17) tells the tale of two ancient enemies meeting after decades of battle. And the enemies, we know, are brothers, true, twin, brothers, Jacob and Esau. Like modern day Egypt and Israel, there was much, too much terrible history between them and yet, Jacob initiates a meeting with his adversary, his brother. Jacob sends Esau messages and presents in advance of their reunion, deferential honorary words are spoken by Jacob’s emissaries. Impressive gifts are delivered and Esau’s response…well the text doesn’t describe his verbal or emotional retort. What the text does say is that Esau prepares to meet Jacob with 400 men - Bible speak for an army. Esau is readying himself to go to war.

My five-year-old son is fond of an album of children’s music sung by the artist David Grover and a number of New York City elementary school choirs. The CD is Caleb’s go to choice for music and he knows every song by heart. The album contains a powerful rendition of the South Pacific song “You have to be Carefully Taught (Rodgers and Hammerstein)”. Caleb, not understanding the song’s nuance, can often be heard in our home singing with gusto the lyrics:

You have to be taught to hate and to fear
Day after day, year after year
It’s got to be drummed in your little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
I’ve had to explain to him what this song is really all about.

Esau and Jacob knew, even before they could walk that their parents took sides, favoring one over another consciously and subconsciously. Isaac and Rebecca carefully taught their two sons lessons that eventually led to them having first a transactional relationship, followed by one of trickery and deceit, and even fear and hate.

I don’t know exactly what Begin and Sadat were taught about each other throughout their lifetimes or exactly what the citizens of Egypt and Israel were shown about each other, but I can guess it was bad, fear and hate filled.

The night before Jacob reunites with Esau, he wrestles, with an angel, with Esau, with himself? It is not clear with whom, but wrestle he does. I believe he is, in part, wrestling with all he has known about his brother and himself. He doesn’t want to continue the pattern, but how does one start doing something new after living an entire life of doing the same thing over and over? How does one break out of a terrible pattern when all one knows is that pattern, when one has been carefully taught this their entire life? This is the wrestling, I imagine, Jacob and Esau go through the night before they meet and I can imagine Sadat and Begin went through something similar as they considered forging a new path of peace almost 40 years ago.

Like Sadat came to Begin and Israel, Jacob comes to Esau and Canaan, ancient Israel.

Jacob, in front of all, shatters his pattern of deceit and trickery and his family training and bows low to the ground in front of Esau - he is limping and stripped of artifice and Jacob finds a new self. He apologizes and Esau too finds a way to put his hate aside and brings out a dormant positive connection with Jacob. They embrace and weep and speak kind and caring words to each other and their extended families. The feud, the hate, is finally over.

Sadat’s first words to the Israeli Parliament were: “I have come to the Knesset, so that together we can build a new life, founded on peace.” Later at the White House peace treaty singing Begin praised Sadat for his civic courage and then said: “now it is time for all of us to show civic courage, in order to proclaim to our peoples and to others: no more war, no more bloodshed, no more bereavement - peace unto you, salaam, forever.”

We know our world is filled with too much brokenness, this is true on a personal, national and global scale. It is at times heartbreaking and depressing. And then we read Vayishlach and retell the modern day story of Begin and Sadat. Let us therefore take heart in our tradition’s undying hope in repair and reconciliation and belief that we can be the agents of healing. Let us do our best, where we can, to make it so and where reconciliation is more complicated, let’s retain within us the hope and promise that despite the darkness among us that eventually we can work to ensure light, goodness and peace triumphs. Amen.