Abraham and our impasse with the Palestinian Arabs

Torah insights on the need for negotiations, looking back at Abraham's purchase, Eliezer's mission, gifts from crooks- amd bible critics.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple ,

Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond Apple
family

When Abraham wanted to buy a burial place for Sarah he explained to the Hittites that he was a stranger and sojourner (a resident alien) amongst them.

This is a strange negotiating tactic when God had already assured the patriarch that the territory would be his.

Abraham could have relied on the Divine promise, but he knew that it would be more effective to ask politely for the Hittites to agree to his needs.

They finally agreed to sell him the land, though for far more than it was worth. The Anchor Bible calculates that the price he paid – 400 shekels of silver – was probably enough to buy a whole village, not just a burial site. But the important thing was for it all to be done peacefully.

The modern impasse with the Palestinian Arabs seems to be a repeat of the ancient problem. The difference is that (at least so far) the Palestinians are weakening their own position stage by stage by not negotiating when there is no other way that there can be a deal with Israel.

One wonders if Israel could brandish the Biblical story of Ibrahim before them and achieve anything that way.


ELIEZER & THE CAMELS

Water for the camels plays a large part in this week’s Torah reading.

Eliezer needed a way of testing Rivkah’s character. If she had been a less ethical person she would not have given him water to drink but would have said, as Abravanel tells us, "You are thirsty? You are standing by the well – take some water!"

She would also not have thought of his camels and the large amounts of water that they needed. She was a kind person and turned her kindness into action.

When Eliezer told the story to the family he toned down her words and actions as he perceived that the family were not on her level of ethics.

They thought it was the ultimate in stupidity to put animals before human beings, but she realised that the animals depended on the humans as their source of food.

The family on the other hand were eager to get a good husband for Rivkah and they did not want to affect the marital prospects by giving the impression that Rivkah was so stupid as to put animal welfare first.

GIFTS FROM CROOKS


Q. Why is the Jewish community happy to accept gifts from people whose wealth comes from dubious practices?

A. If your question implies that Judaism whitewashes unethical practices in business, this is far from the truth.

The Torah warns us against having false weights and measures, putting a stumbling block before the blind, perverting truth and justice and exploiting the disadvantaged.

The Talmud says that the first question put as we seek entry into the World to Come will be, "Did you deal honestly in business?" (Shabbat 31a).

It equates the punishment for unethical business practices with that for committing adultery (Y’vamot 21a).

Maimonides says that a mark of a Torah scholar is that his business is conducted with integrity (Hilchot De’ot 5:13).

So if someone who is widely considered to be unethical seeks to give the community a donation or endowment, the question is whether to accept it.

The decision is not easy, because there are issues of evidence of wrongdoing, of not publicly shaming a person and of not discouraging someone from coming back to the Torah and repenting. So there can be no hard and fast rule.

The ideal would be to use the occasion to influence the prospective donor to turn over a new leaf and to counter any lack of ethics in the past by going lifnim mishurat hadin – being more than ordinarily scrupulous in future. And this would imply trying to make amends to those whom they might previously have exploited.

But if it comes to the crunch, it may on occasion be necessary to find a way to decline a gift or endowment, with all the consequences that may follow.


BIBLE CRITICISM


Q. How does Judaism handle the claims of Bible critics who question the text and authorship of the Torah?

A. Judaism reveres the Torah as the word of God.

Yes, there are non-traditional interpretations that are sometimes quite radical and "hack at the shoots" (Chag. 14b). These interpretations claim to be based on linguistic and historical evidence, though the "evidence" is sometimes disputed and some of its proponents are biased against Judaism and even against religion as a whole.

Judaism does not object to people asking questions: what it objects to is the claim that the critics have all the answers.

There is a Jewish tradition called Midrash which derives its name from darash, to seek out. Midrash seeks out the hidden meanings in the text. Its approach is not arrogant and aggressive but loving and patient, knowing that the Divine giver of the Torah works at His own pace and reveals His secrets when and how He chooses.

The believer heeds Psalm 27:14, "Wait for the Lord" and remembers the advice of the Ethics of the Fathers, "It is not your duty to complete the work – but neither are you free to desist from it" (Avot 2:16).



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