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WILL AND GRACE
a web exclusive


by Joseph Cox    
Torah from Dixie Columnist    

We are in the midst of a war. Like Britain in World War II, Israel had been the lonely and isolated force against terror. On September 11, as on December 7, the American beast was awoken.

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We are in the midst of a war. Like Britain in World War II, Israel had been the lonely and isolated force against terror. On September 11, as on December 7, the American beast was awoken. Now, the war has been joined by the greatest power in the world. But so far we've seen few results. It appears that the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan, at the same time the enemy is using anthrax to attack the U.S. There doesn't appear to be any end to the war. The U.S. is being attacked like never before and there seems to be a bottomless well of people willing to fight and die to destroy America and Israel.

What can we do? How can we win this war?

This week's Torah portion, combined with the lessons of World War II, offers us some positive insight. In this Torah portion, buried among Sodom and Gemarra and the near sacrifice of Isaac is an incredibly unusual scene. Hagar, Abraham's other wife and Ishmael, Abraham's son, are sent away. They come to the wilderness. Ishmael is about to die of thirst. So his mother leaves him and walks away so as not to suffer through the experience of seeing her son die. And then, because of his cries, Ishmael is saved by Hashem.

What is so odd about this story?

First, there is the question of why is Ishmael sent away? He doesn't do anything that appears so bad. He doesn't look like a bad guy. And why, after he is banished, does Hashem rescue him from death?

A possible answer is that that Ishmael was sent away not because of anything he did, but because of his mother, Hagar. Isaac was about to be born. Isaac was to be the 'only son' of Abraham and to carry the tradition of moral goodness that Abraham and Sarah represented to the next generation. Isaac was to be the most sheltered of the forefathers. He lived in Israel his whole life, his marriage was arranged on his behalf, and so on.

Isaac was a model of perfection, his greatest test was when he was nearly sacrificed. His greatest test was not to fight human battles, but to demonstrate that he was totally devoted to Hashem, living a holy life in the holy land. Hagar and Ishmael could not be around Isaac. Hagar was a woman who would leave her son to die in order to avoid the unpleasantness of being with him when he dies. Hagar was not a good person. She would’ve be a terrible influence on Isaac.

So why is Ishmael banished as well? In many modern sciences, from medicine to psychology and sociology, the terms 'inherited traits' and 'environmental influences' are thrown around quite a bit. As far as these two terms are concerned, Ishmael wasn't in a great situation. Genetically, he had both Abraham and Hagar as parents. This was half of a good mix. But environmentally, he had very little to go on. He was raised by his mother and she was a fundamentally bad influence. By extension, he would have been a bad influence on Isaac, and Isaac wasn't to have bad influences. Isaac had so little experience with evil that he didn't even recognize Esau for who he really was. So Ishmael had to be banished as well.

Why wasn't Ishmael killed though? His descendants certainly caused the Jews enough trouble. Why didn't Hashem allow him to die in the desert? While modern scientists and pseudo-scientists might throw around genetics and environment as the determining factors in a person's life, there is a third item that in Judaism trumps both of them. That third item is will. Ishmael didn't choose to do anything bad. He might have had a poor upbringing, but he wasn't a bad guy. Unlike Esau, who shared a home and parents with Jacob but turned out to be a tremendously bad person, Ishmael didn't have the will to do evil. Because of his own merit, because his lack of an evil will, Hashem rescued him. While Ishmael wasn't a bad guy, he wasn't a tremendously good one either. It was Isaac who willfully acquiesced to his own sacrifice on an altar to Hashem. Isaac had the good will, the good genetics and the good environment. It was Isaac who was the whole package and the inheritor of Hashem's blessing.

This story teaches us that people can be poor influences just because they have been raised in the wrong environment and they haven't had the will to make themselves better. Ishmael was such a person. Although Ishmael didn't do anything bad, his descendents did. They took the lessons passed down from Hagar and they acted on them, they combined their will with their environment and they did evil things. If the Arabs of today are Ishmaelites, as they claim, they still haven't broken this cycle. Despite a long period of civilization and peace, the Arabs have reverted to their nomadic tendencies. They haven't successfully developed societies of their own, other than societies built on networks of deadly competition -- between son and father, brother and brother, family and family, clan and clan, country and country, and Muslim and infidel. They haven't learned how to and they haven't demonstrated the will to try to build a settled society. On the contrary, they have demonstrated the will to destroy, the will to do evil and the will to kill the innocent out of hatred. While this is a broad sketch and hardly indicative of individuals, it remains true of the 'Arab nation.' Had Ishmael been like this, or even been like Hagar -- he would have died in the desert.

This story reveals three influences: genetics, environment, and will.

After Pearl Harbor, the United States fought Japan into the ground. They, as a famous general once said, killed the enemy "until the enemy lost the will to fight." They bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and took the will to wage war completely away from the Japanese. And then the U.S. occupied Japan. During that occupation, the U.S. took a country that was ready to send its best and brightest to die as Kamakazi pilots, and created a pacified nation, an economic powerhouse, and a full participant in the world of today. The Japanese themselves played a role, turning their dedication and ethic towards economic success instead of war. What happened? The U.S., and General Douglas MacArthur in particular, broke the environmental stranglehold that had united the Japanese in war. The U.S. changed the rules -- it changed the education, it changed the law and it quickly created a society with equal rights, an emphasis on education, a strong constitution, a strong legal system and a breakup of the old powers, the Zaibatsu. The society that condoned and encouraged war was no more. The U.S. destroyed the will and changed the environment. By the time the will of the Japanese had returned, the environment had changed. Their will blossomed in a modern society dedicated to economic success.

The U.S. won the war against Japan not just through military strength or containment or targeting leaders. The U.S. won the war by eliminating the enemy's will to fight and then changing its environment.

To fight the terrorists, to stop the spread of suicide bombers and people looking to throw their lives away to kill others, we must destroy their will to fight and we must change their environment. The Japanese had suicide bombers and millions ready to die for their country. But that spirit was completely broken by our nuclear attack. In the present war, we must overwhelm our enemies, utterly destroying them and quite literally breaking them so that they have no will left to fight us. Our enemies have used weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological weapons, and we must consider doing the same. Like the Russians in Chechnya, we must consider the use of weapons like fuel air explosives. We must consider the use of weapons designed only to kill. We will lose soldiers and they will lose civilians -- in this war, the enemy can not be perfectly targeted. But once we have destroyed their will to resist, we must recreate their societies in the image of our own. We must create societies where goodness is emphasized, where human rights, freedom, and democracy exist. We must create societies where education is paramount. The dictatorships and sheikdoms must be toppled and replaced. Not least importantly, we must absolutely destroy the newspapers, television stations, textbooks, radio stations, and religious schools that teach hatred. In a war against evil, these are legitimate targets -- they provide the environment in which evil is bred.

This war might take a generation. It might take a generation of children not raised to hate by their schools, their TVs, their newspapers and even their families. It might take a generation of children raised in the right environment. However, it can happen a lot faster. Given the right environment, most people are fundamentally good -- Islam itself is not fundamentally bad. For the Japanese, the nobility of American ideals and the essential benignity of the American presence put to rest much of the bitterness and anguish of complete defeat. By 1951, seven years after the military conflict was over Japan was an ally of America -- a true friend sharing many of the same ideals and facing many of the same obstacles. Japan, by 1951, had become a country which bore little resemblance to the nation that had attacked Pearl Harbor and raped Nanking. Japan wasn't perfect by any means, but it was a great deal better.

This is the path we must take.

As we consider our options, we will see another path, an appealing path. There is a path of half measures, a path where we try to find common ground with an enemy dedicated to our destruction and to ideals that share nothing with our own. This is the path Israel has been forced down by world opinion and this is a path that never ends. This is a false path, and it must be avoided -- because there is no compromise with enemies dedicated to your destruction.

As this Torah portion shows us with Ishmael, there are three keys to a person, or even a nation. These are genetics, environment, and will.

We can break the will of our enemies and we can change their environment from one that teaches hate and destruction to one that teaches liberty, justice, and the importance of building one's society. We must break their will through killing. But killing is not our strength and we do not relish the act. Our strength, the strength of all good people, lies in building and creating. And that is the most important part of our mission.

I landed in Melbourne the day of the attacks. Everybody was asking me what, as an American, I thought. My response that first day was pretty straight-forward. Again and again I said, "We've got to kill the bastards."

This Torah portion teaches us that that is only step one.

May we see peace in our generation, may our enemies become our friends, and may the lion lie down with the lamb.

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Joseph Cox, a close friend of the Torah from Dixie family, is the founder of givedaily.org.

You are invited to read more Parshat Vayeira articles.

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