This a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/17/16 –
It has been interesting in the weeks since the presidential election to watch President Elect Trump fill the various cabinet and diplomatic posts that are required of a new administration. And I have been waiting with particular interest to see who Mr. Trump would tap to be the US ambassador to Israel. That question that was answered this week when he asked David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, and also the son of a Conservative rabbi, to fill that post. Traditionally the ambassador doesn’t have any policy making power – instead, his or her role is to carry out the policies of the current US administration, while at the same time keeping an ear to the ground for what is happening in the host country.
That being said, the choice of ambassador is often seen as an indicator of where the current administration might be leaning in terms of how it intends to relate to the host country, in this case Israel, what policies it might hope to put into place, what strategies it intends to emphasize. And if this is the case, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about who the new ambassador is, and what his known views on Israel are. And although David Friedman has never been a diplomat, he has for many years now been very involved in Israel and Israeli issues, and has written a series of columns for prominent Israeli papers about the peace process, the settlements, the West Bank, a two state solution – if there is a controversial political issue in Israel, particularly regarding Israeli – Palestinian relations, then David Friedman has written about it or spoken publicly about it.
What is immediately clear from even a cursory examination of his writing and public speaking is that he is a hard line Hawk, so much so that many of his positions bring him to the right of the Netanyahu government, considered already to be a Hawkish administration. He believes in the idea of a ‘greater Israel,’ that there should be full Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory of David’s kingdom as described in the Bible. He has helped over the years to fund the Israeli settler movement, establishing Jewish outposts and small villages in Palestinian areas, and he is on the record as saying it is within Israel’s rights to annex sections of the West Bank. He has also publicly said that he does not believe in a two state solution, and he has demonstrated a particular talent for overblown rhetoric, recently publishing an article in which he called President Obama an anti-semite. In that same article he wrote that Jews who insist on supporting positions on Israel that he views – David Friedman views – as radically to the left are worse than Kapos, the Jews who worked with the Nazis in WW II.
All of this to give you a taste of David Friedman, and you can see he is strongly opinionated, controversial, and also seems to have no tolerance for views which do not agree with his own.
Now again, the job of the ambassador is not to set policy, but rather to carry out the policies of the administration he or she serves. The question is will the Trump administration adopt the same views of their ambassador? Or to take the question one step further, is David Friedman’s appointment an indication that the administration is already adopting those views?
As we let that question settle into our minds, let me turn our attention for a moment to this morning’s Torah portion. I know that the President elect is not a religious man, and does not read the Bible, but David Friedman is an Orthodox Jew, and I would guess first of all he is in shul this morning, and second of all is very well familiar with the narrative in this morning’s sedra, the story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a mysterious unknown attacker. I am sure you are also familiar with the story, one of the best known in the entire Bible. Jacob is returning to the land of Israel after a 20 year absence. While away he has grown wealthy, become a husband and a father. But he is afraid to come home because he knows he will have to confront his brother Esau, from whom he stole the blessing and the birthright two decades ago. He knows that Esau is coming to meet him at the border, and he takes a series of precautions – dividing his possessions, his children, and his wives into different groups with the hope that if one group is attacked the other will survive. And then Jacob does something curious – he waits, alone, in the dark, on the far side of the border.
It is at that point that Jacob is attacked by a mysterious ‘ish’ – the Hebrew for ‘man.’ The man seems to become an angel, but the text is very obscure, and commentators have for centuries debated about the identity of that ‘ish.’ Who was he, and what did he really want with Jacob?
Many answers have been given over the years, but the one that interests me this morning understands the mysterious man to actually be Esau, the brother that Jacob fears. Let us imagine for a moment that it is indeed Esau who crosses the river under darkness, and attacks his brother. This is the language the Torah uses to describe that moment – ויאבק איש עמו – the man wrestled with him. It is a curious term to say the least – so much so that the only the time the word is used in the entire Bible – the whole Bible! – is in this story. Why didn’t the man sneak up on him in the dark and attack him with a sword or knife? Or shoot him with an arrow? All of these are forms of combat the Bible was familiar with – so what is this business with the wrestling?
Here is one answer from the biblical scholar and commentator James Kugel – “In wrestling the limbs of the two antagonists become so entangled that one does not know for sure which belongs to whom. Wrestling simultaneously seeks closeness to and control over. The loser does not die or leave; though he must acknowledge defeat, he remains present, even near, in the continuing embrace of the victor.”
Jacob and Esau wrestle in the dark because they have become so entwined, so entangled, they they cannot figure out a way to separate one from the other. They know that even if one of them is victorious the victory will be only temporary. The other will still be there, perhaps damaged, perhaps injured, but still standing, and will not be going away. They may not trust each other, they may even hate each other, but they are compelled to come together, time and again, limbs intertwined, foreheads touching, muscles straining, with neither able to achieve a clear victory.
When you think about it that is not a bad description of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. And it might be one that David Friedman, and by extension President Elect Trump, might want to spend some time mulling over. There is no magic spell that will make the Palestinians somehow disappear in the darkness. And there is no moral path to making them go away. And the more settlements you build, the more entangled you will be with them. That is the reality the next American ambassador to Israel will be facing, and the president elect’s administration will be dealing with. Wishing otherwise will not make it go away. So I hope they recognize that reality soon, and I wish them the very best of luck in dealing with one of the most difficult diplomatic dilemmas of modern times –