OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi.



Question.   The Torah, with the story of Isaac and Ishmael, shows the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Do you think it will ever really end?

Answer.       Isaac is the ancestor of the Jews and Ishmael of the Arabs. Islamic tradition exalts Abraham as an exemplar of faith and trust, though it regards Ishmael as the one who propagated the teaching of Abraham and as the son who was almost sacrificed.

The two ways, the Jewish and the Islamic, have had their periods of bitter tension, but also their times of cultural cross-fertilisation.

Jewish tradition regards Jews and Arabs as “dodanim”, cousins, who will eventually become reconciled, just as, according to the Midrash, Isaac and Ishmael became reconciled at the graveside of their father.

An Israeli poet, Shin Shalom, puts these words into Isaac’s mouth,

“Ishmael, my brother, how long shall we fight each other? Time is running out, put hatred to sleep; shoulder to shoulder let us water our sheep.”

Jewish sheep and Arab sheep both need to be tended. Jewish children and Arab children both need to laugh, play and grow. Jews and Arabs are both there in the Middle East to stay. They do not have to kiss each other, but they have more to gain from living at peace than from letting hatred smolder.


There was a time when Europe was civilised and America high-minded. Then both went morally down-market to the extent that people with good memories asked, “Whatever happened to the Europe and America I remember?”

I have an answer but I fear to articulate it. Instead I make the bold if biased claim that Israel is now the moral leader of mankind. I know the United Nations and many other places have no time for Israel and whatever it does is by definition wrong, but I still think I am right.

What warrants my claim that Israel is, as the prophets knew it would be, “a light unto the nations”?

The fact that Israel is the headquarters of heroism. I’m not thinking of the start-up talents which make science and technology the characteristic exports of Israeli brain-power, but the fact that – in Rav Soloveitchik’s terms – Israel is the place where a whole nation shows “g’vurah”, moral courage and ethical strength, as opposed to the brawn-power of mere “ko’ach”.

Israel has its “ko’ach” heroes: thank God they keep us strong and safe. But its “g’vurah” heroism is discussed by Rav Steinsaltz in one of his essays. In his view heroism is the art of keeping going come what may. The hero’s trees are uprooted yet he replants them. He looks to tomorrow even when today is under threat. He does not retreat into a shell when things turn dark but he keeps doing the things he must.

Israel is the heroism of hope.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Blog: http://www.oztorah.com

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