venerdì 31 dicembre 2010

On Parasha Toledot

I have read recently an interesting story from the Middle East. Apparently there is a big outrage going on in Palestinians’ headquarters. Mr Siham Barghouthi, Minister of Culture of the National Palestinian Authority is furious. He had spotted a kefya.You know, that black and white piece of clothes Arafat used to wear as part of his uniform, and that can be seen around the necks of some students, red and white.

Mr Barghouthi had discovered that an Israeli firm is marketing a new kind of kefya, “with an intricate Star of David pattern in the center piece, and words AM ISRAEL CHAI (Jewish People Live) in Hebrew, weaved into its fabric”. You can have it in blue and white, or also in military green. Mrs Maha Saqa, which is the director of the Heritage Conservation Center of Bethlehem told that this is, nonetheless, “a theft of heritage”.

Now, don’t ask me what Palestinian ministers do all the day, and what a Palestinian Heritage Conservation Center is meant for. I do not know. I can only say it seems they have a lot of time in their hands, so that they can follow so closely the fashion business. While neither of them seems to care about the kefyas being produced, actually, in China; and that in the last five years two Palestinian weaving factories went bankrupted. What can I say is that, being the nerdish person I am, and following a suggestion of a Religious Zionist friend of mine, I opened my beloved Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature by Marcus Jastrow.

That dictionary was published more than a century ago, long before the kefyah became the symbol of anything. And there I read an interesting entry about the sudra, which is a scarf wound around the head and hanging down the neck or a turban. Apparently in Talmudic times it was a sign of distinction for Jewish scholars. We have no proof it was used during the Biblical times, but to claim that sort of turban as authentically Arab, as opposed to a Jewish in-authenticity, is absurd.

This story reminds me the part of Parasha Toledot [Genesis 25:19-28:9]. There is a Jew in Eretz Israel. He’s doing reasonably well, you know there are ups and downs, but this guy is intelligent and a hard worker too. Unfortunately there are also the Philistines around; they do not care about welfare. They do not take any pain in improving, or in developing their own economy. No. The only things they care is, as v. 26:15 says, סִתְּמוּם פְּלִשְׁתִּים, וַיְמַלְאוּם עָפָר, to stop up Isaac’s wells, and to fill them with sand.

First the Philistines vandalize the Jewish business; so Isaac is forced to move. Not content, they keep on the destruction, even after Isaac had moved away. And why? Well, the text itself says it, v. 26:14 וַיְקַנְאוּ אֹתוֹ, פְּלִשְׁתִּים. , which is usually translated as “the Philistines envied him”. But is someway a sweeten translation, like often it happens when the text of the Bible is translated in one of our European languages. The verb itself, לקנא, is not simply about “envy”; it has a more intense meaning. A more appropriate translation indeed is “jealousy”; and there is also a component of zeal, because קנין are actually: religious fanatics.

But is not only the text to speak in this way. Abimelech himself, Philistines’ king, speaks to Isaac and says: “Go away from us, because you infuriated us too much”. [26:16] Apparently, there is something about a Jew prospering, that makes upset the surrounding people. Or at least certain kind of people, the ones who live under the rule of some arrogant Abimelech, a sovereign that does not care about building their own welfare and prosperity. They just want to get rid of the Jews, and cancel every sign of Jewish presence: so they fill with earth the wells that Isaac had dig.

I believe is still very vivid the memory of the mob destroying the wells and the greenhouses in Gaza, after the last Jewish family had left the place where they had lived, some of them from generations. And similarities are even more striking: Isaac dug anew the wells that his father Abraham dug; and that the Philistines had stopped up. Isaac even gives to the well the same names. As a result the Philistines are furious and look for the casus belli, the reason of war. According to them (let’s say their narrative) every well that the herdsmen of Isaac digs (let’s say: every Jewish well), is indeed in disputed land.

It is clear who had started it, because the Philistines clearly stated their goal, which is to get rid of Isaac’s family, because the Jews had upset them – period. Had some journalist been there, we might have a report about a continuous war of attrition between two different groups of herdsmen. Except that Isaac never retaliates, and simply keeps on moving from place to place, looking for a tiny piece of land not to be bothered by the Philistines. Abraham dug wells, the Philistines stopped them up, out of fury, intolerance, rage. Then the people of Isaac reopened the same wells (mind, the Philistines refuses even to use them, they just destroy) and had made the desert bloom. And then Isaac had to move.

Now, we might joke about the media reporter who strives to be neutral, and actually spreads lies more poisonous than Philistines’ propaganda. I understand there are plenty of such a reporters in this Country, and, believe me, Italy is not an exception. But in the Torah, in our text, in the portion we have read, we have no journalists. God Himself is silent.

Only when Isaac is far away from the theatre of hostilities, in Beer Sheva, 26: 23, only at this point, God appears to Isaac and reminds him the promise made to Abraham. God has been silent throughout the whole period of the conflicts, the tribal war. When the Philistines destroyed all the wells, that could have benefitted all the populations in the area, and replace them, actually, with nothing. With afar, sand, dust. With the desert. And God was silent.

I would suggest that God is not impressed by any claim of authenticity. God appears to Isaac, and reminds him the promise made to Abraham and the merit that Abraham had gained. “I will bless you and increase your offspring”[26:24]. But this happens only after Isaac managed to solve the conflict by himself, choosing wisely not to quarrel and not to fall into the traps of provocations and retaliation. Commentators maintain that Isaac was discouraged and frustrated, as a middle aged man not able to match the achievement of his father. At this point God enforces his self-confidence. But God does not help him to make peace with the neighbouring Philistines. This is a totally human matter.

The Torah tells us that Abimelech lately searches Isaac, to stipulate a peace treaty with him. His people are now impressed by Isaac’s achievements and realize that fighting a war is a huge waste of time, money and human lives. How did they come to this conclusion, the Torah does not tell.

Abimelech in 26:28 ff.  speaks in the first plural person, like he did the previous time. “We have seen” is just like the previous “you had made us furious”. First person plural: “we”. But now, to propose and sign this treaty, Abimelech appears together with Ahutza, his councillor, and Ficol, the chief of the troops. They are the heads of the civil and the military administration.

Abimelech, that is, the leader of the Philistines, had developed a more pluralistic form of government, had learnt to listen to the people’ needs and will. Now he wants to work for their well-being instead of throwing them into the same, endless, war. Yes, Abimelech repeats the same piece of propaganda “we have never molested you”; but in the end he asks for a peace treaty, so that the welfare brought by the wells dug by Abraham first, and Isaac then, can benefit his people too.

One wonders what the BBC would have reported at that time.

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