Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks – The Courage of Persistence Toldot 5779

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks -The Courage of Persistence Toldot 5779

There is a strange passage in the life of Isaac, ominous in its foreshadowing of much of later Jewish history. Like Abraham, Isaac finds himself forced by famine to go to Gerar, in the land of the Philistines. There, like Abraham, he senses that his life may be in danger because he is married to a beautiful woman. He fears that he will be killed so that Rebecca can be taken into the harem of king Avimelekh. The couple pass themselves off as brother and sister. The deception is discovered, Avimelekh is indignant, explanations are made, and the moment passes. Genesis 26 reads almost like a replay of Genesis 20, a generation later.

In both cases Avimelekh promises the patriarchs security. To Abraham he said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like” (Gen. 20:15). About Isaac, he commands, “Anyone who molests this man or his wife shall surely be put to death” (Gen. 26:11). Yet in both cases, there is a troubled aftermath. In Genesis 21 we read about an argument that arose over a well that Abraham had dug: “Then Abraham complained to Avimelekh about a well of water that Avimelekh’s servants had seized” (Gen. 21:25). The two men make a treaty. Yet, as we now discover, this was not sufficient to prevent further difficulties in the days of Isaac:

Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him. The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him. So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.

Then Avimelekh said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”

So Isaac moved away from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.

Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac’s herdsmen and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they disputed with him. Then they dug another well, but they quarrelled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarrelled over it. He named it Re?ovot, saying, “Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land.” (26:12–22)

There are three aspects of this passage worthy of careful attention. The first is the intimation it gives us of what will later be the turning point of the fate of the Israelites in Egypt. Avimelekh says, “you have become too powerful for us.” Centuries later, Pharaoh says, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are greater in number and power than we are. Come on, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply and it come to pass, when there befall any war, that they join also with our enemies and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land” (1:9–10). The same word, atzum, “power/ powerful,” appears in both cases. Our passage signals the birth of one of the deadliest of human phenomena, antisemitism.

Antisemitism is in some respects unique. It is, in Robert Wistrich’s phrase, the world’s longest hatred.¹ No other prejudice has lasted so long, mutated so persistently, attracted such demonic myths, or had such devastating effects. But in other respects it is not unique, and we must try to understand it as best we can.

One of the best books about antisemitism, is in fact not about antisemitism at all, but about similar phenomena in other contexts, Amy Chua’s World on Fire.² Her thesis is that any conspicuously successful minority will attract envy that may deepen into hate and provoke violence. All three conditions are essential. The hated group must be conspicuous, for otherwise it would not be singled out. It must be successful, for otherwise it would not be envied. And it must be a minority, for otherwise it would not be attacked.

All three conditions were present in the case of Isaac. He was conspicuous: he was not a Philistine, he was different from the local population as an outsider, a stranger, someone with a different faith. He was successful: his crops had succeeded a hundredfold, his flocks and herds were large, and the people envied him. And he was a minority: a single family in the midst of the local population. All the ingredients were present for the distillation of hostility and hate.

There is more. Another profound insight into the conditions that give rise to antisemitism was given by Hannah Arendt in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (the section has been published separately as Anti-Semitism).³ Hostility to Jews becomes dangerous, she argued, not when Jews are strong, but when they are weak.

This is deeply paradoxical because, on the face of it, the opposite is true. A single thread runs from the Philistines’ reaction to Isaac and Pharaoh’s to the Israelites, to the myth concocted in the late nineteenth century, known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.It says that Jews are powerful, too powerful. They control resources. They are a threat. They must be removed.
Yet, says Arendt, antisemitism did not become dangerous until they had lost the power they had once had:

When Hitler came to power, the German banks were already almost Judenrein (and it was here that Jews had held key positions for more than a hundred years) and German Jewry as a whole, after a long steady growth in social status and numbers, was declining so rapidly that statisticians predicted its disappearance in a few decades.5

The same was true in France:

The Dreyfus affair exploded not under the Second Empire, when French Jewry was at the height of its prosperity and influence, but under the Third Republic when Jews had all but vanished from important positions.6

Antisemitism is a complex, protean phenomenon because antisemites must be able to hold together two beliefs that seem to contradict one another: Jews are so powerful that they should be feared, and at the same time so powerless that they can be attacked without fear.

It would seem that no one could be so irrational as to believe both of these things simultaneously. But emotions are not rational, despite the fact that they are often rationalised, for there is a world of difference between rationality andrationalisation (the attempt to give rational justification for irrational beliefs).

So, for example, in the twenty-first century we can find that (a) Western media are almost universally hostile to Israel, and (b) otherwise intelligent people claim that the media are controlled by Jews who support Israel: the same inner contradiction of perceived powerlessness and ascribed power.

Arendt summarises her thesis in a single, telling phrase which links her analysis to that of Amy Chua. What gives rise to antisemitism is, she says, the phenomenon of “wealth without power.” That was precisely the position of Isaac among the Philistines.

There is a second aspect of our passage that has had reverberations through the centuries: the self-destructive nature of hate. The Philistines did not ask Isaac to share his water with them. They did not ask him to teach them how he (and his father) had discovered a source of water that they – residents of the place – had not. They did not even simply ask him to move on. They “stopped up” the wells, “filling them with earth.” This act harmed them more than it harmed Isaac. It robbed them of a resource that would, in any case, have become theirs, once the famine had ended and Isaac had returned home.

More than hate destroys the hated, it destroys the hater. In this case too, Isaac and the Philistines were a portent of what would eventually happen to the Israelites in Egypt. By the time of the plague of locusts, we read:

Pharaoh’s officials said to him, “How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that   they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet realise that Egypt is ruined?” (Exodus 10:7)

In effect they said to Pharaoh: you may think you are harming the Israelites. In fact you are harming us.
Both love and hate, said Rabbi Shimon bar Yoc?ai, “upset the natural order” (mekalkelet et hashurah).7 They are irrational. They make us do things we would not do otherwise. In today’s Middle East, as so often before, those intent on destroying their enemies end by doing great harm to their own interests, their own people.

Third, Isaac’s response remains the correct one today. Defeated once, he tries again. He digs another well; this too yields opposition. So he moves on and tries again, and eventually finds peace.

How fitting it is that the town that today carries the name Isaac gave the site of this third well, is the home of the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University, and the Kaplan hospital, allied to the Medical School of the Hebrew University. Israel Belkind, one of the founders of the settlement in 1890, called it Re?ovot precisely because of the verse in ourparsha: “He named it Re?ovot, saying, Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land.”

Isaac is the least original of the three patriarchs. His life lacks the drama of Abraham or the struggles of Jacob. We see in this passage that Isaac himself did not strive to be original. The text is unusually emphatic on the point: Isaac “reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.” Normally we strive to individuate ourselves by differentiating ourselves from our parents. We do things differently, or even if we don’t, we give them different names. Isaac was not like this. He was content to be a link in the chain of generations, faithful to what his father had started. Isaac represents the faith of persistence, the courage of continuity. He was the first Jewish child, and he represents the single greatest challenge of being a Jewish child: to continue the journey our ancestors began, rather than drifting from it, thereby bringing the journey to an end before it has reached its destination. And Isaac, because of that faith, was able to achieve the most elusive of goals, namely peace – because he never gave up. When one effort failed, he began again. So it is with all great achievements: one part originality, nine parts persistence.

I find it moving that Isaac, who underwent so many trials, from the binding when he was young, to the rivalry between his sons when he was old and blind, carries a name that means, “He will laugh.” Perhaps the name – given to him by God Himself before Isaac was born – means what the Psalm means when it says, “Those who sow in tears will reap with joy” (Ps. 126:5). Faith means the courage to persist through all the setbacks, all the grief, never giving up, never accepting defeat. For at the end, despite the opposition, the envy and the hate, lie the broad spaces, Re?ovot, and the laughter, Isaac: the serenity of the destination after the storms along the way.

Shabbat shalom,






[1] Robert Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred (New York: Schocken, 1991).
[2] Amy Chua, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (New York: Anchor Books, 2004).
[3] Hannah Arendt, Anti-Semitism (part one of The Origins of Totalitarianism), (Harcourt Brace and Company, 1979).
[4] The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a forgery, produced by a Russian journalist at the end of the nineteenth century, claiming that there was a Jewish conspiracy to achieve world The classic work on the subject is Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (New York: Harper & Row, 1966). See also Hadassa Ben-Itto, The Lie That Wouldn’t Die: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2005).
[5] Ibid., 4.
[6] Ibid., 4-5
[7] Bereishit Rabbah 55:8.


On Judaism and Islam
Chayei Sarah 5779

The language of the Torah is, in Erich Auerbach’s famous phrase, “fraught with background.” Behind the events that are openly told are shadowy stories left for us to decipher. Hidden beneath the surface of Parshat Chayei Sarah, for example, is another story, alluded to only in a series of hints. There are three clues in the text.

The first occurs when Abraham’s servant is returning with the woman who is to become Isaac’s wife. As Rebecca sees Isaac in the distance, we are told that he is “coming from the way of Be’er-la?ai-ro’i” (Gen. 24:62) to meditate in the field. The placement is surprising. Thus far we have situated the patriarchal family at Be’ersheva, to which Abraham returns after the binding of Isaac, and Hebron, where Sarah dies and is buried. What is this third location, Be’er-la?ai-ro’i, and what is its significance?

The second is the extraordinary final stage of Abraham’s life. In chapter after chapter we read of the love and faithfulness Abraham and Sarah had for one another. Together they embarked on a long journey to an unknown destination. Together, they stood against the idolatry of their time. Twice, Sarah saved Abraham’s life by pretending to be his sister. They hoped and prayed for a child and endured the long years of childlessness until Isaac was born. Then Sarah’s life draws to a close. She dies. Abraham mourns and weeps for her and buys a cave in which she is buried, and he is to be buried beside her. We then expect to read that Abraham lived out the rest of his years alone before being placed beside “Sarah his wife” in the Cave of Machhpelah (Gen. 25:9).

Unexpectedly, however, once Isaac is married, Abraham marries a woman named Keturah and has six children by her. We are told nothing else about this woman, and the significance of the episode is unclear. The Torah does not include mere incidental details. We have no idea, for example, what Abraham looked like. We do not even know the name of the servant he sent to find a wife for Isaac. Tradition tells us that it was Eliezer, but the Torah itself does not. What then is the significance of Abraham’s second marriage and how is it related to the rest of the narrative?

The third clue to the hidden story is revealed in the Torah’s description of Abraham’s death:

And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years, and was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the Cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased of the children of Het. There was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife. (Gen. 25:8–10)

Ishmael’s presence at the funeral is surprising. After all, he had been sent away into the desert years before, when Isaac was young. Until now, we have assumed that the two half-brothers have lived in total isolation from one another. Yet the Torah places them together at the funeral without a word of explanation.

The sages piece together these three puzzling details to form an enthralling story.

First, they point out that Be’er-la?ai-ro’i, the place from which Isaac was coming when Rebecca saw him, is mentioned once before in Genesis (16:14): It is the spot where Hagar, pregnant and fleeing from Sarah, encountered an angel who told her to return. It is indeed she who gives the place its name, meaning “the well of the Living One who sees me” (Gen. 16:14). The Midrash thus says that Isaac went to Be’er-la?ai-ro’i in search of Hagar. When Isaac heard that his father was seeking a wife for him, he said, “Shall I be married while my father lives alone? I will go and return Hagar to him.”¹

Hence the sages’ answer to the second question: who was Keturah? She was, they said, none other than Hagar herself. It is not unusual for people in the Torah to have more than one name: Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, had seven. Hagar was called Keturah because “her acts gave forth fragrance like incense (ketoret).”² This indeed integrates Abraham’s second marriage as an essential component of the narrative.

Hagar did not end her days as an outcast. She returned, at Isaac’s prompting and with Abraham’s consent, to become the wife of her former master. This also changes the painful story of the banishment of Ishmael.

We know that Abraham did not want to send him away – Sarah’s demand was “very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son” (Gen. 21:11). Nonetheless, God told Abraham to listen to his wife. There is, however, an extraordinary Midrash, in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, which tells of how Abraham twice visited his son. On the first occasion, Ishmael was not at home. His wife, not knowing Abraham’s identity, refused the stranger bread and water. Ishmael, continues the Midrash, divorced her and married a woman named Fatimah. This time, when Abraham visited, again not disclosing his identity, the woman gave him food and drink. The Midrash then says “Abraham stood and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things. When Ishmael returned, his wife told him about it, and Ishmael knew that his father still loved him.”³ Father and son were reconciled.

The name of Ishmael’s second wife, Fatimah, is highly significant. In the Koran, Fatimah is the daughter of Mohammad. Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer is an eighth-century work, and it is here making an explicit, and positive, reference to Islam.

The hidden story of Chayei Sarah has immense consequence for our time. Jews and Muslims both trace their descent from Abraham – Jews through Isaac, Muslims through Ishmael. The fact that both sons stood together at their father’s funeral tells us that they too were reunited.

Beneath the surface of the narrative in Chayei Sarah, the sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between Abraham and Hagar on the one hand, Isaac and Ishmael on the other. Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Bereishit Rabbah 60:14.
[2] Bereishit Rabbah 51:4.
[3] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 30.







An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant”, Rabbi Sacks is a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world.
Since stepping down as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – a position he served for 22 years between 1991 and 2013 – Rabbi Sacks has held a number of professorships at several academic institutions including Yeshiva University and King’s College London. In addition to his writing and lecturing, he currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. Rabbi Sacks has been awarded 17 honorary doctorates including a Doctor of Divinity conferred to mark his first ten years in office as Chief Rabbi, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.
Rabbi Sacks is the author of over 30 books. Among them, Rabbi Sacks has published a new English translation and commentary for the Koren Sacks Siddur, the first new Orthodox siddur in a generation, as well as powerful commentaries for the Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot Machzorim. His most recent work, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence was awarded a 2015 National Jewish Book Award in America and was a top ten Sunday Times bestseller in the UK. Past works include: The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning; The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, winner of the Grawemeyer Prize for Religion in 2004 for its success in defining a framework for interfaith dialogue between people of all faith and of none; To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility; and A Letter in the Scroll: On Being Jewish, winner of a National Jewish Book Awards in 2000. His Covenant & Conversationcommentaries on the weekly Torah portion are read in Jewish communities around the world.
In recognition of his work, Rabbi Sacks has received, among others, the Jerusalem Prize in 1995 for his contribution to diaspora Jewish life, The Ladislaus Laszt Ecumenical and Social Concern Award from Ben Gurion University in Israel in 2011, The Guardian of Zion Award from the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University in 2014, and The Katz Award in recognition of his contribution to the practical analysis and application of Halakha in modern life in Israel in 2014. He was named as The Becket Fund’s 2014 Canterbury Medalist for his role in the defence of religious liberty in the public square; won a Bradley Prize in 2016 in recognition of being “a leading moral voice in today’s world”; and in 2017, he was awarded the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute for his “remarkable contributions to philosophy, religion, and interfaith discourse… as one of the world’s greatest living public intellectuals.” In 2018, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by The London Jewish News in recognition of his services to the Jewish world and wider society.
Rabbi Sacks was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in 2005 and made a Life Peer, taking his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009. Born in 1948 in London, he has been married to Elaine since 1970. They have three children and several grandchildren.




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