Friday, July 11, 2014

A Night-Visit from Isaac; Ishmael Doesn't Come


I sat alone in my study—rockets and missiles flew over Israel and Gaza; how could I comfort my congregation, this Shabbat?—and the hour was growing late. It was then I heard him, on the stairs, but smelled an ashen odor, at first, as if of human sacrifice… I was almost frightened, though I knew he would never hurt me; quickly I rose, and moved the books—Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Siege: the Story of Modern Israel, and Reb Moshe: the Life & Ideals of HaGaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l—off the chair, so he could sit his bones down.
            As he came ‘round the corner, he smiled at me; he looked weary—Father Yitzchak, Isaac, second of the Patriarchs; he who was almost sacrificed, half-brother of Yishmael ben Hagar of Egypt, Father of the Arabs and Palestinians.
            “Shabbat Shalom, R’ Yitzchak,” I said.
            “Shabbat Shalom, R’ Dovid,” he replied.
I noted how Isaac grimaced a bit as he sat back in the old office chair, and realized that his leg-and-back-wounds from his Father Abraham’s laying him on the bundle of sticks, prior to his near-sacrifice, had probably never healed. I had always considered poor Isaac a lightweight by comparison with the lofty religious pioneer, Abraham, and the conniver-turned-hero, Jacob; Isaac had, after all, been born into the family shepherding business, and only deepened the wells his father had dug, meaning that he was a simple link in the Jewish chain, rather than an innovator. Still, I was grateful for his visit.
            “Could I trouble you for a sip of water, Dovid?” my guest asked, and I remembered my manners, going to the bathroom to fetch him a paper cup. The Patriarch looked puzzled as he held the frail vessel gently in his hands and lifted it to his bearded lips, but smiled when he understood its purpose.
            “I am more used to pottery, you see—“ he said.
            “Yes,” I interrupted, for it was growing late, the Israelis were threatening to invade Gaza, and I dearly wished for our conversation to begin, “Where is Ishmael, your brother?”
            “Can’t you guess?” asked Isaac, and his eyes grew at once softer and sadder, “Where else should he be? He is with his people, in Gaza, as I am here with you. My father Abraham, my mother Sarah, all of my children and grandchildren—they are all assembled invisibly in the Land which the Lord God gave them, watching over and protecting Our People.”
            “Is there no land for the Children of Ishmael and Hagar?” I asked.
            “Ah, Dovid’l, you cannot ask me that,” smiled Isaac, bitterly, “It is not given to me, or to any of your ancestors, to tell you what will occur in the future. The Lord God Almighty alone knows the answer to that.”
            “Will God decide the fate of our people, and the Palestinians?” I asked, pressing the Question further.
            “You know well,” said Isaac, and in his words I suddenly realized that this man, whom I once believed weak and helpless, had a stronger backbone than I might have thought, “that God makes allowances for the Free Will of humanity. And then, there are also Fate and Chance. Politics did not exist in my day, and the Weapons were not nearly so sophisticated. Our World was so much smaller, Dovid’l….”
            “Is there nothing that remains the same, R’ Yitzchak?” I pleaded.
            “One thing,” said Isaac, and he held up a steady, admonishing finger, “The hatred that humanity bears for one another.”
            “But is that Jew-hatred?” I asked.
            He shook his head.
“Call it what you like,” he said, “but in this case, I believe it is simple jealousy. Don’t you think that when, for example, my father went to purchase the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite, and that old thief made such an exorbitant opening price, did he not expect my father to bid him down? But Papa was in such a fit of black grief, and blind mourning, that he paid it on the spot. And then, Ephron regretted not asking for more. He was jealous. It is simple jealousy that leads to hatred: that, and the cynicism stemming from years and years of one people dominating another. I cannot say more, for I love our people so much, so much, that I dare not criticize them. I—“
            I looked, and saw tears coursing down Isaac’s time-withered cheek.
            “But I loved my brother Ishmael as well,” he said, “for he taught me first to hunt, creep softly through the woods, and use a slingshot. We might have stayed friends, had he not become a wild young creature, when he grew older,” he continued, “I believe he sensed that I was to be the favored son. That was Mother Sarah’s doing,” he said, “and she was within her full and perfect rights, according to Hurrian Law. But it tore our family apart. That is what I see now, happening here again—“
            He put his face in his hands and cried silently; I reached for a tissue, and handed it to him, but he frowned; he did not know what to do with it. At length, he understood, and blew his nose, loudly. Then, he rose.
            “I have said, perhaps, too much, my Friend,” he whispered, nodding slowly. “It is not for me to come between the pass and fell of mighty opposites, my children and those of my brother Ishmael. That is something your people and theirs will have to settle; I hope, without too much spilling of blood, if at all. But I warn you of one thing, before I go.”
            “And what is that, my Father Yitzchak?” I asked, even as the morning-light began to spread through the room, and his form began to fade.
            “That our leaders think very carefully, before beginning any massive invasion,” he said, “for killing many, once begun, is very hard to stop.”

            And vanished. What is left to do? What can anyone do? The Question Stands.