Column: Our Anger Might Be Righteous, But It Can’t End There
By Mitchell Hurvitz
I was made aware of the terrible tragedy unfolding in Paris a few hours before we were to hold our Sabbath Eve service. Terrorists had again succeeded in blotting out God’s light within a portion of our world. President Obama rightfully declared, “This is an attack not just on Paris, not just on the people of France, but an attack on all humanity and the universal values we share.”
This evil came less than a year from the attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, and a Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket.
As I tried to digest the terrible news, I was mindful that in a few minutes I was going to enter a Shabbat in which we had two respective Bar and Bat Mitzvah services to celebrate, the Aufruf (pre-wedding blessing) of a bride and groom, and the participation of our three choirs, which have more than 60 children ranging from ages 9 to 18.
These joyous occasions in themselves help cast aside the darkness, but I still felt the need for more hope to which we might all cling.
The Torah portion that we had on this particular Sabbath tells the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob. twin brothers. The story is filled with sibling strife, and this only further agitated my spiritual discomfort. Yes, later in life the twin brothers would have their lukewarm reconciliation, but I wanted an immediacy of hope for all brothers and sisters; something that could set an example for human societies. Then, amidst our sacred Scriptures, I began to focus on our patriarch, Isaac.
Isaac usually doesn’t get a lot of our attention. He’s always seemingly the supporting actor in every biblical narrative: Sarah gives birth to Isaac in her old age; Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain only to have God intervene at the last moment; Rebecca dominates her husband’s life, ultimately prompting Jacob to trick Isaac into giving him the blessing that had been intended for Esau. Isaac is an important supporting actor, but never the starring actor; except for one shining example that many do not have familiarity with.
Isaac’s father, Abraham, confronted famine during his lifetime. To escape the hardship, he moved his family to Egypt until he could return to the Promised Land after the famine had ended. Isaac’s son, Jacob, would also leave the Promised Land because of famine. Isaac’s story is a little different. He too confronted famine during his lifetime. However, like the Israelis of today, he refused to give in to the hardships that confronted him. He continued to work the ground with relentless discipline and faith, and his efforts were rewarded. In a place of general famine, Isaac’s crop yield was a hundred times larger than any other person’s.
While making the land produce, Isaac had to deal with the Philistines. They were jealous of Isaac’s success and they sabotaged Isaac’s water wells. Isaac refused to give in to these malicious acts performed by his enemy. Patiently he repaired each well, and marked each with a title that demonstrated the evil that had been attempted against him. He called one well Sitnah, the “well of harassment,” and another Esek, the “well of contention.”
Isaac’s continued patience and fortitude to confront all challenges within his land paid off, and he continued to have great success when all others had many failures. The Philistines began to observe Isaac more closely, and they came to realize that God really had blessed him over them. While Isaac was digging a new well, the leader of the Philistines came to Isaac with two of his soldiers. A fascinating dialogue follows:
Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me…?” They answered, “We saw clearly that the Lord was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’—between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the Lord.” (Genesis 26: 27-29)
The Philistines had come to Isaac, but had taken no responsibility for their past actions. Isaac chose not to focus on what might have been his righteous anger for the wrongs committed against him by the Philistines. Instead, he focused on the possibility that moving forward a peace agreement could be made and mutually observed.
Isaac laid out a feast and they ate and drank together. Early in the morning they exchanged oaths. Then Isaac said good-bye and they parted as friends. Later that same day, Isaac’s servants came to him with news about the well they had been digging. They said, “We’ve struck water!” Isaac named the well Sheba (Oath), and that’s the name of the city, Beer-sheba (Oath-well), to this day. (Genesis 26: 30-33)
This narrative is a story of hope, and can give us guidance for a future possibility that peace can be secured in our times.
Isaac could have held onto his righteous anger. But he understood that this would have served no purpose in moving forward effectively. Instead, he chose to only focus on the proposed peace agreement. It might have been a “cold peace,” but the results were the same for Isaac. No more harassment from the enemy; safe and secure borders; all made possible because Isaac had stayed resolute in his convictions, relentless in his self-discipline, and always on the look-out to make circumstances better for himself and his family.
Lest we think this type of peace agreement isn’t possible, we can simply observe the Camp David accords that were signed by Egypt’s President Anwar El Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin on September 17, 1978.
The first stage of this peace agreement followed less than two weeks of secret negotiations at Camp David. The second stage of the agreement led to the all-encompassing 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. In 1978 Sadat and Begin together received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Prime Minister Begin was just like our patriarch Isaac. He would have been well within his rights to be unwilling to set aside his righteous anger against the enemy who had committed so many evil acts against the Jewish people. But he understood that righteous anger is ineffective, and the only items to concentrate on are what might be useful moving forward.
When we look at the acts of evil-doers, we are rightfully very angry. However, the Torah comes to remind us that while we must be resolute in our convictions and relentless with our self-discipline, we also need to be always on the lookout for any circumstances that might make for a tomorrow that is brighter than today.
Our prayers are with all of the innocent souls and their loved ones who have been victimized by these acts of evildoers. We pray that God will end all war and bloodshed, and that a great and wondrous peace may come to our world. May nation not lift up sword against nation and may they learn war no more. May all the inhabitants of the world come to recognize that we were not created for hatred, but rather we were created for love and to possess the knowledge that every human being is created equally in God’s image. “For the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness calm and confidence forever.”
Mitchell Hurvitz is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom in Greenwich.