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Chayei Sarah: Can East Meet West?

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Transcendent Integration

As the streets of Israel become more dangerous, with an onslaught of actual or thwarted attacks becoming a new norm;

As radical Islam continues its march east into Syria, Iraq, Iran and who knows where else;

As the president of the United States, supposed leader of the western world, seems to be cuddling up to Iran;

As the east and the west brace for escalating confrontations — what has been coined “a clash of civilizations;”

As proud Europe (once the crown jewel of the western world) slides into surrendering to the religious forces of the east;

As many now recognize the consequences of the British Empire’s mistake to divide the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, superimposing unnatural (western thinking) boundaries to a region controlled by endless (eastern thinking) tribal factions;

In the words of Rudyard Kipling, lamenting the gulf of understanding between the British and the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent.: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet;”

As all of us wonder where this century is headed —

I was thinking whether Abraham, in his prescience, may have built in an antidote to the current upheavals. Abraham, after all, was the “father of a multitude of nations.” It was he that pioneered faith, virtue and justice in an otherwise selfish and hostile world, spawning a movement that has now impacted most of our globe. This in turn unleashed passionate forces, which would take on aggressive means in the guise of his son Ishmael (“a wild man”) and grandson Esau (“a man of war”).

So Abraham was keenly aware of the risks posed by untamed faith and religion and the challenges it would bring to earth. Just study the history of religious oppression in the last few millennia – the holy wars fought, the injustices perpetrated by man against man in the name of G-d, the tyranny of the church. By no means was war monopolized by the religious, but neither was religion immune to the corruption that men of power often succumb to.

Abraham surely knew how religious zealotry can breed intolerance, condescension, judgmentalism and prejudices of all sorts — feeding into the ugliest elements of human nature. But at the same time Abraham knew that the true G-d fearing man or woman is driven by humility and compassion, and can never hurt another in the name of his own faith. Because by its very definition: belief in G-d and love of the divine is synonymous with love for every human being created by G-d in the divine image. You love what your beloved loves.

That’s why it isn’t far-fetched to say that as he paved a new way for civilization — defying the pagan self-worshipers (and worshipers of a god created in the image of man, rather than the other way around) — Abraham inoculated his belief system with checks and balances, immunizing it from the dangers of self-serving arrogance.

* * *

Indeed, a cryptic detail we read in this weeks chapter reveals for us Abraham’s foresight:

Following Sara’s death and Isaac’s marriage, Abraham remarries Hagar, mother of Ishmael, who is now called Keturah, “for her deeds were [now] as pleasing as the ketoret [incense].” [1] They have more children, and when those children grow up Abraham “gave them gifts” and “sent them eastward to the east country.” [2]

What type of gifts were they? Says R’ Yirmiyah bar Abba: Abraham gave them the knowledge of “unholy utterance.” Rashi explains that this means he gave them the secrets of the unholy arts of sorcery and demonology. However this is completely inexplicable: Why in the world would Abraham, the man of G-d, who certainly taught his children the ways of G-d, give his very children unholy arts?! And why would that be called “gifts”?!

Commentaries [4] therefore explain that since Abraham sending his children to the east where idolatry was prevalent, he wanted them to know the wisdom and methodology of the idolaters, so not to be deceived by them and to defend themselves against these practitioners. Furthermore, with these “gifts” Abraham empowered them to transform the unholy arts into holiness. [5].

Why did Abraham go to such lengths to send his children to the east laden with gifts? Because Abraham was forging the way and setting the stage for the future: that when the day will come his children in the east will be able to sanctify and reveal the divine even in the impure world.

This action of Abraham is completely consistent to his previous actions in preparing, like a good father, all his children for the challenges to come. In previous articles (see Abraham’s Vision) and I elaborated on Abraham’s vision preparing the ground for all the great empires to come, as well as imbuing Ishmael and Esau with the tools they would ultimately need to fulfill their purpose in existence (see Ishmael: How Does it End? The Big Confrontation and Two Faces of Esau).

That covers the west and the middle east. Now, when it comes to the children he has with Keturah/Hagar, Abraham finishes the process by sending them to the east with the “gifts” and tools to do their work there.

So there you have it. Abraham, “father of a multitude of nations,” prepares all his descendants to transform the universe — from west to east — into a divine home. Perhaps this can be related to what Jacob would later be told: “You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south.” [6]

And thus in he final analysis, with all due respect to Kipling, who felt that east and west could never meet, they indeed could and will meet. Kipling was looking at from his limited human perspective, and from that vantage point it does seem that east and west are diametrically opposed.

Indeed, the conflict between the twp manifests in so many ways. East and west. Right and left. Circle and square. Digital and analog. Transcendent and immanent. Linear physics and quantum mechanics. Indeterminism and determinism. Energy (or spirit) and matter. Function and form. Soul and body. Every system, every philosophy, every person struggles in some way with balancing the two diametric poles of life. Right brain and left brain. Creative and mechanical. The abstract and the tangible. Beyond structure and structure. Unconscious and conscious. Heaven and earth.

But can ever the twain meet? Abraham’s answer to us is: Unequivocally yes. Not only can they meet; they can be integrated into one seamless fusion.

Abraham’s mission of sending his children “to the east” contains the answer to the world’s greatest quandary: How can we bridge the schisms between people, communities, nations, cultures and faiths? How can we achieve harmony between the conflicting voices within our psyches? And what is the secret to finding peace in the Middle East, the West and the East?

The answer in one word is Bittul. When every entity is able to suspend its own personality and position, when we each can transcend our boundaries in the face — and service — of something far greater than us, then we can interface and fuse the two into one integral unit.

In the far-reaching words of the great Kabbalist, Ibn Gabbai: “Just as He [G-d] has the power of the infinite so too does He have the power of the finite, for if not you would be diminishing (limiting) his capacity.”

May we do our part and may we all be blessed to see the complete peace between the clashing forces, with the final personal and global redemption.

For a more elaborate discussion on this topic, please go here to view Rabbi Jacobson’s latest class.

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[1] Genesis 25:1 and Breishit Rabba on the verse.
[2] Ibid 25:6.
[3] Sanhedrin 91a. Rashi on the verse.
[4] Cited in Be’er Sheva on Sanhedrin. Gur Aryeh on the verse.
[5] Some say that Abraham taught them how to address G-d while one is in a state of impurity since h knew that they would live in an impure environment (Sifsei Chachamim on the verse). This can be taken a step further to mean that Abraham empowered them with the ability to transform the impure into the pure.
[6] Genesis 28:14. See also 29:1.

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ALEX

When asked what would ensure harmony and peace, Confucius answered, the proper definition of words.

Wonderful article, but dont forget to spell Sarahs name with the letter h. I know you wouldnt take the Breath of God from Abraham and revert him to Avram.

I always love your writings but this time, I must take pause. Mankind was created with some serious flaws and it is evident from the beginning. Adam and Eve began our long dysfunctional path and it has never stopped. While we have the capacity for a higher plateau of behavior and the Torah gives us a paradigm in which to express that behavior, we somehow , way too often wind up being destructive. We are tragically flawed and there are too many of us to ever function as a unified higher functioning species. We are a cultural and behavioral tower… Read more »