Address to New York Theological Seminary: Answering the Cry in the Middle East






I begin this post with the above image of Jacob and Esau that I found on the web from the artist David Otto  It captures, artistically, one of the questions that the ancient rabbis struggled with in the Midrash – namely, “is the competition between the brothers inherent?”


New York Theological Seminary

October 29, 2014


Spiritual Lessons from Twins:

Jacob and Esau as a Paradigm for Israel and Palestine 

Seventeen years ago, when my wife was in graduate school, we lived two blocks from this building, on 121st street, the section that has now been named after one of my patron saints, the comedian George Carlin. My wife was pregnant and she was feeling a lot of kicking so we went to the hospital for an ultrasound. The physician pointed at the screen and said: Frick and Frack! And this is how we learned that we would become parents of twin boys. Not only twin boys, but identical twin boys. Which is probably why I am obsessed with biblical narratives about twins and why I have come here tonight to tell you that the answer to the question of how we might bring peace to the land of milk and honey is…twins. I speak here of “twins” as a concept, an archetype.  Envision twins in the womb for a second – these are two competing forces, each struggling to obtain nutrients for themselves to survive, and yet they float around in the same fluid and are influenced by the same thoughts, feelings, and hormones of the mother and the broader environment that she lives in. My question tonight is this: What does it mean for twins to co-exist in the womb and beyond it? And how might that spiritual metaphor guide us forward?

For my twins, who are now sixteen, the struggles to co-exist outside the womb have taken place in every corner of our house. Their arguments are fierce and sometimes the boys have needed to be physically restrained. In many of their fights, one says “I am talking about what just happened” and the other says “I am talking about a pattern of things that have happened” and the other says “that is not the pattern!” They do not agree on the facts that make up their shared past and they both see the other as the one in the wrong. They both feel like victims. And they both have their strategies on the verbal and physical battlefield. During their arguments, which can go on for up to three hours, I often find myself yelling “Stop it!!!!! I can’t take it anymore!!!!” – twins can be difficult.


But being the father of identical twins has given me a unique perspective on coexistence – a perspective I bring to my thinking about Israelis and Palestinians – Israel and Palestine.


Two people, one womb. Two people, one land. Two people, one placenta. Two people, one Jerusalem. What does it mean to co-exist?


Before I begin to speak about the Modern State of Israel, I want to start with a few words that describe a historical period a few thousand years long:
















The saga of people – not just Jewish people – but most people on this planet, is a saga of home, exile, despair…and hopefully home again. And sometimes it is saga of finding and building a new home that one never thought would be home but is, for all intents and purposes, home.


I speak as an American –  I am not an Israeli citizen or a Palestinian citizen of Israel, or a Palestinian without citizenship.  But I am someone who is connected, by faith, by family, and by fate, to the Holy Land. A few snapshots that capture that connection:




I’m twenty years old and walking back from the cafeteria, I find myself in the middle of the Middle East conflict. I’m visiting my friends at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We are walking to the dorms which are situated at the top of a hill. A small group of Palestinian teenagers from the bottom of the hill starts throwing rocks at us. A rock whizzes by my head and another one hits my friends’ backpack. We jump to the ground and cover our heads with our arms. Rocks are coming in. One falls right in front of me so I decide to stand up and cock a rock back at them. They run as fast as they can back into the olive tree grove behind them. My heart is racing. The next day my friend and I are at one of the gates of the ancient city. The Israeli police have closed the gates and the Palestinian shopkeepers are upset. A Palestinian shopkeeper throws a rock at a policeman that hits him at the top of his forehead, and I see the blood running down his face. Another policeman comes riding in on horseback, swinging a wooden bat at the crowd. One of the Palestinian shopkeepers who is trying to run away from the horse is hit by the bat and falls to the ground. This is first time in my life I have seen a man kill another man.


Three years later and I am studying Torah in Jerusalem. One of my friends has a huge crush on this young religious woman named Sara who only wears long skirts. She is quiet and lovely and is a vegan – exuding a disposition of gentleness and grace. I’m not sure that she is a match for my friend but they go out for dinner. He thinks there might be a spark there so they go out again. But it doesn’t work out. A few months later, she is riding a bus. A Palestinian man walks onto the bus and explodes a bomb strapped to his chest. She is killed.


The Galilee


I am sitting at the Sulha – a gathering of Palestinians and Israelis that is a music festival and people are camping together in a national park. There are many religious people and secular people of all traditions.  My twins and their younger sister are in the playground with my wife and they are playing with Palestinian and Israeli children – it is like a dream to see children playing together. I sit in a tent drinking tea with a circle of bereaved parents, all parents who have lost children in the conflict. Most of them are Palestinians. They go around and share their stories.


I spend a few days with Wassim Bashara and Pablo Ariel – Wassim is a Palestinian violinist and Pablo an Israeli puppeteer and they work together to create shows for children and adults in the Galilee region about the conflict. I watch them build a micro-culture of peace in Maalot and Tarshisha, two towns, one Jewish, one Arab, on the opposite side of a mountain road.


Tel Aviv


I am with my cousin Noga who is working to help Darfurian refugees who have sought political asylum in Israel. She and her colleagues are putting pressure on the government to accept these refugees and she helps stage a Passover Seder where the refugees can tell their stories of Exodus – of literal escape from Egyptian bondage.


I am with the kids on the beach as my wife and a friend of hers who is a professor of theater at Tel Aviv University go to the Ramle prison to watch a play produced directed and acted in by the inmates that tells the stories of their lives.  Most of the inmates are Muslim or Christian Arabs or Jews from Arab lands. My wife comes home and tells me a little about every story, riveted by the power of the narratives, realizing the many layers of trauma that have been visited on the inmates.


And one last snapshot about Israel/Palestine that is about something that happened to me here in New York at the summer camp Face to Face/Faith to Faith of Auburn Seminary.


After staff training, I am speaking with a young Palestinian woman from Gaza, 19 years old, as she tells me about her little brother who is five years old. Her words strike me: My little brother says “if they can shoot their guns straight out like this and kill us, can they shoot their guns straight up like this and kill God?”


And that thought hits me in the gut. How can a child grow up in such conditions?


I share these stories to point out that Israel is an incredibly complicated place. It is a place that for me that is connected to incredible acts of bravery and hope and incredulous acts of brutality and despair. It is a mess.


Sometimes I ask myself: Why Israel? Why is so much of the world’s attention on a country that is the barely the size of New Jersey? Wouldn’t it be better if we focused that attention on New Jersey? From a historical or scientific point of view Israel is at the crossroads of a number of the early great civilizations. It is the meeting point between Egypt, Greece and Babylon. The land itself is on the sea and runs along the Syro-African rift. It is a migratory path for birds and it is the human migratory path between continents.


From a religious point of view, my teacher of blessed memory Dr. Tikveh Frymer-Kensky called it the axis mundi – the bellybutton of the world – the umbilical cord connection to the cosmic realm. It is the place where a ladder of angels enters and exits the world. It is the portal. The heavenly gate. It is the spot of the holiest site on earth, a site that one day will unite people of all seventy nations to live together in peace. And I should add that for Christians it is the place where G-d walked on earth.

Israel is intense. Five years ago I had the great adventure of traveling through Israel and the Palestinian Authority with two friends from my days as a counselor for the Fresh Air Fund, one, a biracial Cherokee and African American whose predominant spiritual practice was singing tunes from Jesus Christ Superstar, and the other a former Mormon who does not connect to Church but connects deeply to a higher power. We went to the waterfall in the Negev desert where the psalmist, David ran away from King Saul. We jumped in and were swimming underneath the falls and my friend says, “Wow, this is like really Biblical!” And we all started laughing. Israel is that kind of place, a place where you feel connected to the vast sweep of human history, to the patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets, psalmists, priests, and mystics. It is not a normal place.

And yet it is a normal place. A flawed nation-state like every other nation-state. A nation state with a history of citizenship laws based on prejudice, like every other nation state. A place with contested borders, oppressed minorities, corrupt officials…like every other nation state. And a state with some unique problems that it has inherited from the United Nations, from multiple wars, and from international actors who try to influence the region.

Israel is somehow the center of gravity, and by that I mean that, symbolically, two billion people on this planet believe that peace can’t happen on earth until peace happens there. Israel needs to be in balance. And we all like to point fingers at who is to blame for throwing it off balance.

Israel, in my understanding, is complicated because it doesn’t fall into a neat category. It is fairly easy to make sense of the many lands around the globe that were colonized by Europeans – lands where Natives were wiped out by war, disease, or genocide – and to feel solidarity to those who have inherited the legacy of that oppression. But what do you do in places where there are two indigenous peoples? What do you when two native tribes are battling for the same native land? What do you do when there are twins in the womb?

For those of you who may doubt that Israelis and Palestinians are twins, I would point you to the multiple genetic studies that trace Jewish and Palestinian Y-haplotypes back over four thousand years. Racists among us may try to deny it, but we are, literally blood brothers.

What that means is that you could dig into the soil around Jerusalem and find the bones of my ancestors and the bones of Wassim’s ancestors and cull a DNA sample and they would match up.

So what do you do about twins?

Twins disrupt the natural order of patriarchy. It should be noted that Patriarchy is a human invention – with our primate cousins, chimps or gorillas or bonobos or orangutans, fathers do not have specific relationships with sons who they feel will take over when they move on – they just relate to all young as part of the wider troop of young ones. Human males developed a system in which fathers protect particular children and develop first-born privilege. But with twins…Who is favored? Who gets the birthright? Who gets the blessing? Who inherits the farm?

The first story about twins in the Torah is a warning story of what can go wrong. It is the story of Cain and Abel, which most rabbinic commentators view as a story of twins.

Cain is a farmer and he offers a sacrifice of produce. The first sacrifice in human history. His brother Abel offers an animal sacrifice.

Apparently G-d likes BBQ because Cain gets the second place trophy.


Cain is dejected. He is in the field.

Abel says something to Cain in the field.

Cain picks up a rock and kills his brother.


What was said in the field? Here is the Midrash the ancient rabbis offer us:

The brothers divided the world, one taking the land, the other the farm animals. One day they crossed paths. One said: That sheepskin jacket, that is mine! One said: That ground you are standing on, that’s mine! Well — Strip! Well — Fly!

The ancient rabbis give two other explanations: Maybe it was spiritual “I wanna build the temple here, no over here.” Other rabbis say: they were arguing over which sister they would get to shack up with. Very limited romantic possibilities at the time.

The first twins are a disaster in turns of reconciliation. A tragedy. But maybe we can learn to get beyond it with the second great story of twins.

Isaac and Esau in the birth canal, Isaac trying to hold back his hairy brother. A hunter and a mamma’s boy. A birthright sold for lentil soup. A clever mother and a costume and a blessing stolen. Under threat of violence the Momma’s boy has to run away to a crazy uncle. Years later, a tense meeting.

The ancient Rabbis argued about how to view the story.

Is the difference between twins inherent, or is the difference something that evolved later on?

One rabbi writes: When Rebecca passed a house of learning Yakov kicked in her womb to try to run to the house. When she passed a house of ill repute, Esau kicked!

But our greatest sage, Rashi, comments:

“When Jacob and Esau were boys, their actions were not different and no one could see a difference in nature between the twins. As soon as they turned thirteen, one went off to the house of study and one went off to drunken pagan rites.”


And what do they make of the meeting that comes as both men are now adults, with children of their own.

Genesis 33

But he himself passed on ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. He lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and said, “Who are these with you?” So he said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.”…

The rabbis argue again:

In Genesis Rabbah 78:9 we read

וירץ עשו לקראתו וישקהו נקוד עליו אר”ש בן אלעזר מלמד שנכמרו רחמיו באותה השעה ונשקו בכל לבו, אמר לו ר’ ינאי אם כן למה נקוד עליו אלא מלמד שלא בא לנשקו אלא לנשכו ונעשה צוארו של אבינו יעקב של שיש וקהו שיניו של אותו רשע ומה ת”ל ויבכו אלא זה בוכה על צוארו וזה בוכה על שיניו

Esau ran to greet him. [He embraced Jacob and, falling on his neck,] he kissed him; [and they wept.] (Gen. 33:4). [The word] ‘kissed’ is dotted [above each letter in the Torah’s writing]. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said . . . it teaches that [Esau] felt compassion in that moment and kissed [Jacob] with all his heart.

Rabbi Yannai said to him: If so, why is [‘kissed’] dotted? On the contrary, it teaches that [Esau] came not to kiss [Jacob] but to bite him, but our ancestor Jacob’s neck became like marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted. Hence, ‘and they wept’ teaches that [Jacob] wept because of his neck and [Esau] wept because of his teeth.

The hermeneutics we bring to this story of twins will determine if we can live together. Luckily, there is one last part of the Jacob and Esua story that is unquestionably about a reconciliation. Genesis 35.

Isaac breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, an old man of ripe age; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.Genesis 35:19

What I learn from this is that when the death of the father has sunk in, then the brothers can come together. Then the brothers can reconcile. So who is the father, metaphorically, in our current day situation? What has to die for reconciliation to take place?

I want to suggest that the father, symbolically, is the old narrative. It is the narrative of “I’m the victim. I’m the one being oppressed. It’s his fault.” It is the narrative of Cain – a narrative of scarcity, of despair, of revenge.

Maybe there is something to the fact that the father, Isaac, himself is a survivor of trauma. He watched his own father lift a knife into the air to slit his throat. So the death of this trauma may make way for some new possibilities.


But collective trauma does not die easily. And the place we are in now in this conflict is very troubling. I want to share a few words from my favorite Israeli writer, Etgar Keret that he wrote this week to his Palestinian friend Sayid Kusha. He is writing about the way that the Israel public responded to missile fire from Hamas.


…the collective desire to prevail through violence was inspired by the same urge that makes people kick a vending machine that swallowed their money without dropping a can of soda: not because they think it’ll help bring the refreshing liquid closer to their dry lips but because they can’t think of anything else to do.

The explanations I hear from so many of the people I know are: Islamic fundamentalism is growing stronger all over the world, the governments in the region are unstable, and all negotiations will end in the loss of territory without compensation, anyway, because there’s no one in charge there. And that’s only what I hear from people who are trying to be rational. Many others just reject any new idea or initiative by saying something like, “The Arabs don’t want peace, and they won’t stop fighting us until they get Tel Aviv and Jaffa, too.” But all of those dubious claims can’t hide one feeling: despair. And despair is a much more dangerous feeling than fear, because fear is an intense feeling and, even if it can be momentarily paralyzing, in the end it calls for action, and, surprisingly, it can also create solutions. But despair is a feeling that calls for passivity and acceptance of reality even if it is unbearable, and it sees every spark of hope, every desire for change as a cunning enemy.

After this past summer’s Gaza War there is a lot of despair, but there is also hope – there is a desire for change emerging.

Three weeks ago I met Ali Abu Awad, A Palestinian peace activist. He himself was once a militant and served time in Israeli prison. His brother was killed in the conflict. He spent many years in despair until he became active with his mother in the bereaved parents group.

He said two things about letting go of the old narrative: First, he said that both sides need to give up on the competition to win the world’s sympathy for their suffering. And second, both sides need to give up on revenge. He said that when he was a teenager he thought to himself:

How many Israelis do I have to kill to make up for my brother? But as an adult he realized that revenge would never bring back his brother. Kicking the soda machine isn’t getting you anything more than a sore foot. So he breaks bread with settlers, and he risks his life to forge a third way – a new narrative.

For the modern Israeli state, a state that began in response to pogroms, massacres in the 1870s and 80s in Ukraine, and then was flooded with refugees after WWII, it is hard to let go of a narrative of victimhood.

Putting aside the old narrative is a difficult, painful process, which is why in doing so, it is important to have the right metaphor for a vision forward. For me, that metaphor is the metaphor of twins. A twin narrative, particularly an identical twin narrative, begins in the same place. It starts with the premise that we were once one being. We were once in one womb. That womb sustained us and we kept each other company – we sensed each other – we were not alone. And now we need to learn to care for the new eco-system that we are both in so that we both can live. For this reason, one of my favorite organizations in Israel is the Arava Environmental Institute, a project that unites Israelis and Arabs in the region on issues related to water and sustainability.

Do the twins need to live together in one land with some equity or can they dwell in two lands with a clear border? The politicians will have to work that one out. I, like Abu Awad, like the idea of co-joined twins. Separate entities with separate borders but economic and social limbs connected for the benefit of both parties. But whatever the diplomatic solution, the two peoples need to live together in the same womb, the same eco-system, the same tiny corner of the world.

There is one more set of twins in the Torah that are worth mentioning – Tamar, a women who suffers widowhood twice and must cleverly trick her Father-in-law in order to fulfill her desire to be a mother, gives birth to Perez and Zerah. In the Book of Ruth – that incredible tale of redemption, we learn that a descendent of those twins will bring peace to our planet.

I’m not expecting to celebrate any peace treaty anytime soon. I’m a realist. But being a religious person, in my spiritual practice, means believing that humans are capable of repairing the world and that a new narrative can emerge. I pray that the pain we feel with every bit of bad news from the Middle East is the internal kicking that heralds the birth of a new narrative.

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