When I look around me and see what the last 40 years has brought us, since our war in June, 1967, I must confess I am very sad. But why should I feel today anything less or more or different than after 39 or 41 years. What’s in a number? What’s in this number?
Many important, even defining, biblical moments in Judaism involved the number 40. And I have just read that the prophet Mohammad had his first vision and revelations from the angel Gabriel at age 40 after fasting and praying for 40 days. Maybe we should not treat this 40 year anniversary as every one before, or God forbid, every one to come. After all, 40 seems to be a number of some spiritual importance to both of us.
The biblical importance of 40 got me thinking about our shared biblical origins: two narratives with one starting point and constant overlap. What we share now is mostly friction and conflict. Why? How did it all really start between us? What can we learn on this anniversary of when the last 40 years began?
Having once been quite observant, and given our conflict is steeped in generations of history, I thought about God’s first promise to Abram. In the book of Genesis that initial promise was unequivocally given to Abram and his offsprings, even before God gave him the name Abraham:
12.1: Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee. 2. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing… 13.14: And the LORD said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him: 'Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward and eastward and westward; 15 for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. 16 And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth; so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.
Later we read how the same promise was given to Abraham’s son Isaac and all his seed and in turn to Isaac’s son Jacob. But Abram’s seed also included Ishmael and Isaac’s seed also included of course Esau (whose children became more connected to Ishmael’s thru Esau’s marriage to Ishmael’s daughter). So one could argue, or want to interpret, that God’s initial promises to both Abram and Isaac covered all their children, including the brothers who went off to form their own peoples, nations and eventually religion.
And I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to see all this thru other eyes. I think if one looks at our shared narrative through a different lens, a very interesting picture emerges.
God being all knowing would know that one of the results from doing things this way would be discord, competition and violence between the brothers and later between their families, tribes and nations. Inevitably all leading to deep-seated jealousy, animosity and above all mistrust. I have to assume, at least I want to assume, that it could never have been God’s intention that after 3,500 years we would be reduced to this constant competition, friction and so much violence. Did He really intend this to be the inevitable and only possible outcome for us?
But look at where are we today. This may be the piece of real estate that God talked about but it sure isn’t any Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. It feels more like the desert in which the Israelites wandered for forty years before they could cross the River Jordan. For 40 years we both have been lost in our shared tragedy, wandering in our shared spiritual desert. A desert full of angst, denigration, suspicion, flickers of hope, hate, hopelessness and anger. A barren and fruitless desert where nothing beautiful can grow or flourish in the blood soaked ground.
So I ask myself what lessons are we missing in the narrative of our shared beginnings. All the splitting of lineage and leading God’s promise down one particular family path has had in part a terrible consequence – we have become engaged in an apocalyptic struggle of true biblical proportions. We are both living in the land God promised to Abram and all his seed. But we have never, we nor you, been able to realize here a promised land. In fact, together we have made it more the Crying Land. Maybe God’s initial promise to Abram can teach us that we are meant to share the promise, to share the land that was promised.
We have both had our alternating turns at ruling the roost here throughout history. We have both been at the top of the hill with the other down below. In fact we have played a 3,500 year game of king of the hill with disastrous consequences for both of us.
I've always learned this is not how you treat family. And among the things we share as cousins is a deep-rooted spirit of hospitality. We for example place an extra table setting at our Pesach Seder for the prophet Elijah but more importantly for the stranger in need of welcoming. I now know and have experienced how you open your homes and your hearts to all who come in peace during Eid al-Fitr. We both have that from our forefather Abram a.k.a Abraham. But not only opening our homes in hospitality have we gotten from our forefather, we both share, for example, a commitment to charity for those less fortunate – tzedaka. We not only share the concept on that one we even share the word. And yet we can not share a land?
I want to believe that God knew what He was doing but maybe it’s not what we think and have taught. Far be it from me to suggest, maybe He just didn’t want to make it too easy for us. But He surely gave us enough hints to figure it out I think. We share one covenant, we share one forefather and for those who believe, we share One God. Could the key to the 'Promised Land' be anything other than the realization that we are meant to live there and create it together?
I know this may sound crazy to many but think about it for a moment. When we would equitably share this land - in whatever form we together decide, be it one state or two states – we have the potential to create something in the direction of a promised land. I am surely not alone in the belief that if we ever were to forgive, compromise, share and even cooperate, that we and you, Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, have the potential to create flourishing and prosperous societies. And were we ever to do that, the positive ripple effects throughout the region and world would not be small. Of that I am convinced.
I say 40 years wandering is more than enough. Let us forgive, let us reconcile and let us start a new thread in our mutual narrative. Let us start the long and painful journey together. Let’s finally take the only road to the Promised Land, the road that can only be traveled together. And let next June be the first anniversary of a new beginning.
Shalom and Salaam,