As we approach the High Holidays this year, we find a world in turmoil.
At home, the Trump administration continues to push policies and rhetoric rooted in hatred and discrimination, undermining our democracy and sowing fear and divisions. In its approach to the world, our government has largely adopted a bombastic and threatening tone, hardly reassuring us that it can cope with crises and threats across the world.
Amidst these challenges and this atmosphere of worry and doubt, how can we use the holidays to take solace and stock up on the hope and determination that we need to drive and inspire our efforts?
The Days of Awe allow us a time-out to step away from our day-to-day challenges and ponder larger messages. And the Torah reading that we hear on the first day of Rosh Hashana provides us with some important lessons — lessons that ought to resonate with us as we continue to advocate for diplomacy and the pursuit of peace.
In the reading from the Book of Bereshit, we learn of a water dispute between the patriarch Abraham and Abimelech, a local chieftain based in the land of the Philistines. Abraham has dug a well to provide for the needs of his sheep and cattle, but Abimelech’s men have been stealing the water. Abimelech comes to confront Abraham, bringing along with him the head of his military forces. The text describes their negotiations in some detail. Faced with a difficult and hostile opponent and a situation that could easily erupt into violence, Abraham instead chooses a path instead designed to safeguard his community and avoid war.
Abraham offers Abimelech compensation in the form of animals from his flock, in return for an admission that the well belongs to him. Abimelech agrees. The two leaders conclude a treaty and loss of life is avoided.
What lessons does this story have for us? First, that wise leaders resort to diplomacy to resolve their disputes, and see the use of force only as a last resort. According to the text, Abraham is clearly in the right, but also understands that what is most important is securing the long term interests and safety of his family and community. He negotiates a prudent compromise to do so — and avoids an unnecessary war in which both sides would likely have suffered.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict today is, of course, rooted, in part, in long-standing disputes over whom the land of Israel rightly belongs to. But the fact is that two people live on the land and need to find a way to share it. The biblical text teaches us the crucial lesson that simply winning the dispute is not the highest goal. For Abraham, achieving a durable peace and protecting his tribe is far more important than proving that he is right, or suppressing the arguments and goals of his opponent.
In the context of the Iran agreement, President Obama, along with the other world powers of the P5+1, have already applied these lessons by negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran two years ago. Almost all military and strategic experts agree that, while Iran is still a dangerous and often hostile state whose behavior must be effectively confronted, it is also living up to its obligations and has been blocked from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The world is much safer with the agreement than it would be without it. To undermine the agreement simply to spite Iran — or to spite President Obama and those who achieved the deal — would be a foolish and dangerous act.
It is sometimes too easy to extrapolate from the Bible political prescriptions to today’s problems. We should certainly avoid the oversimplification of very complex issues. But our traditions, our holidays and our ancient texts often remind us of important principles and lessons that remain just as true in our own time.
We should keep them in mind as we continue to advocate for wise, effective and forward-thinking diplomatic leadership, and for policies that will help make the US, Israel and the world safer and more peaceful.
Wishing all of you a good, sweet, and above all, a peaceful New Year. We’re looking forward to all that the pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy movement will accomplish together in 5778.
P.S — We’re days away from the close of 5777, and we need your help to achieve our fundraising goal of $57,770. Can you chip in $36, $72 or whatever you’re able to support J Street’s work in the year to come?