Choosing Life Over Land in Genesis 13 and in Peace Politics
Following Abraham and Remembering Rabin
October 31, 2014
Yitzhak Rabin Israel’s Prime Minister was murdered by a man who confessed to hate peace, yet claimed to love God. The shooting took place nineteen years ago at a peace rally at the end of the Sabbath known as Shabbat Lech Lecha, Genesis 12-17, the very Sabbath in which Jews in synagogues around the world read the Torah portion that opens with God’s call to Abraham to literally take himself from his home and go to the land that God would show him.
In this coming Sabbath we will read again this Torah portion in which land is both promised and disputed, bequeathed by God and immediately becomes an object of quarrel over ownership and resources; and Abraham takes action to resolve it peacefully.
The Bible is replete with conflicts over land, pasture, and water rights within and between nations and among and between kin. This week’s Torah portion charts the first of what would become a long history of land disputes.
The land clash in Genesis 13 unfolds as Abraham and his nephew Lot return from a stay in Egypt coming back rich people, so wealthy in fact that “the land could not support them staying together.” Their material possessions take precedence and overshadow their kin ties, “for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together.” The conflict takes shape in a fight among their herdsmen and Abraham decides to resolve the conflict by choosing life over land. While God has promised him the land, Abraham rather than draw on the promise, tells Lot to survey the land and choose, which part of it he would like to inhabit and Abraham will take the other part, “let us separate if you go north I will go south; and if go south I will go north.” Lot chooses what he sees as the most fertile land, “thus they parted from each other.” Abraham does not pull rank as elder, he does not argue that God’s promise gives him exclusive rights, nor does he banish Lot. Abraham averts violence and bloodshed by recognizing rights of living people with different ways of life.
In that sense of choosing life in a land dispute Rabin followed Abraham’s decision, which he clearly articulated in his Nobel Prize address, “There is one universal message which can embrace the entire world, one precept which can be common to different regimes, to races which bear no resemblance, to cultures alien to each other…
It is a message which the Jewish people has borne for thousands of years, a message found in the Book of Books, which my people has bequeathed to all civilized men: “V’nishmartem me’od lnafshoteichem”, in the words in Deuteronomy; “Therefore take good heed to yourselves” – or, in contemporary terms, the message of the Sanctity of Life…
Military cemeteries in every corner of the world are silent testimony to the failure of national leaders to sanctify human life…
There is only one radical means of sanctifying human lives. Not armored plating, or tanks, or planes, or concrete fortifications. The one radical solution is peace.”
Rabin’s killer told the court that he was determined to stop any peace agreement and a two states resolution initiated by the Prime Minister. Moreover, it was clear from the outset of his trial that the man who fired the gun had substantial support from the extreme right for his position that land supersedes life, and that war is better than peace with Palestinians. In the fatal shooting of Rabin the murderer both revealed and widened an acceptance of political violence within the state of Israel.
Since Rabin’s death there has been a growing coercive power of those who refuse peace, who promote blatant ethnocentrism and racism and who resort to violence as the new political norm. Any discourse about human rights, justice, and pluralism, faces serious attacks not only when the left speaks up. Threats have been leveled at people at the highest echelons of Israeli society who dare uphold democratic values. Such threats include recent attacks on the newly elected president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin.
As the Israeli Knesset started its session in the new Jewish year, President Rivlin, a member of the Likud party and son of an established Jerusalem family since the early 1800, addressed the Knesset for the first time as president. He recounted his recent experience as a target of political violence, “During this summer we dedicated much time, unfortunately, to mark internal enemies as well. ‘Little Jew liar,” my critics said to me, and said: ‘May your name be obliterated, Arab agent,’ ‘Go be a president in Gaza… ‘traitor,’ ‘president of Hezbollah’ and these are only some of the voices.
I am not the only one, I am not alone.
We are all equal in the face of violence.
We cannot be silent. Our silence is dangerous. This institution has seen very difficult discussions, even screaming…. this is the way of politics,” he said. But at this point, it is the silence “which echoes the loudest.”
This coming Sabbath as we read the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, we are encouraged, in contemporary terminology, to take ourselves out of silence and follow Abraham in his moment of rejecting violence in land disputes and choose life and coexistence. In following Abraham we could stand with Israel’s President Rivlin and his rejection of silence in the face of violence. We could choose to remember Rabin by actively supporting peace and a two states agreement and we can surely all speak up for human rights, pluralism and justice in Ferguson and in Jerusalem.