By Harvey Sanders
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught: “The entire world is a narrow bridge, the essential thing is not to fear at all.” I try to keep this in mind and there is a lovely song based on this quote. (If you do an internet search for Gesher Tzar Me’od you will find many recordings). Interestingly, a recent study at Johns Hopkins found that narrower roads are actually safer. So narrower isn’t necessarily worse.
The book of Genesis is full of the history of our patriarchs, and they are presented as imperfect humans – as are we all. But in my review of the scriptural reading this week – Toldot – I was drawn to the character of Abimelech of Gerar and his relationship with the patriarchs. Abimelech appears twice in Genesis, first with Abraham and then with Isaac. There are significant parallels.
A few weeks ago, we read about Abimelech and Abraham (chapters 20-21). I knew this one well, because it is a section that I have chanted many times on Rosh Hashanah. There was a misunderstanding about the relationship between Abraham and Sarah (Abraham said she was his sister), causing Abimelech to take Sarah into his home. When God told Abimelech that Sarah is his wife (and that the misunderstanding was not his fault), Abimelech returned her to Abraham, he gave Abraham gifts, Abraham prayed for him and they made a treaty to act toward one another with kindness. A few verses later, when there was a dispute about wells, Abraham gave Abimelech sheep and oxen as proof that these were Abraham’s wells and they made a further pact.
This week, we read about Abimielech and Isaac (Chapter 26). Like his father, Isaac described Rebekah as his sister. When Abimelech discovered she was his wife, he instructed his people to leave Isaac and Rebekah alone. When Isaac sought to reopen the wells that his father had dug, the people of Gerar interfered. When Abimelech saw God was with Isaac, he came to him saying: Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us. Let us make a pact with you that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace. From now on, be you blessed of the Lord.
Abimelech made a feast for them, they exchanged oaths and departed from one another in peace. This takes place near Beersheba (one of the wells Isaac dug), in the Negev desert, an hour from Gaza.
In my day job as an attorney, I deal with contracts. Most of the time, people honor them. When they don’t, we use the legal system. It generally does not get violent. Last month, we saw the worst violence against innocent Israeli grandparents, parents, and children, with more than a thousand killed and more than a two hundred taken hostage by Hamas. The responsibility to bring hostages home is one of the most important commandments in the Bible and we must do all we can to make that happen.
But, to me, the lesson from Abimelech and Isaac (and Abraham) is that sometimes you can make peace with a neighbor who is open to doing so – even when there is friction. Here, Abimelech had reason to distrust Abraham and Isaac. There were misunderstandings. Through communication, they bridged their differences and found peace. No matter how narrow the bridge, no matter how troubled the waters may be under that bridge (a reference to another beautiful song by a Jewish composer), we must be committed to trying to bridge our gaps. That can be true with neighbors in the Middle East and here in Buffalo, and I look forward to building bridges in our community in my new role helping to lead the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in 2024.
Harvey Sanders is a partner at Sanders & Sanders, a law firm specializing in labor and employment law. He is a Past President of Temple Beth Tzedek and currently serves on the Federation’s Board of Governors. Beginning in January, he will co-Chair the Buffalo Jewish Community Relations Council.