The Two Wars in Iraq

by Rabbi David Zaslow
November, 2004

There are really two wars in Iraq – a physical war and a spiritual war. Our sages teach us that events in our world are mirrored in the spiritual realm, and visa versa. Regardless of our political affiliations, I’m sure that we all pray for the safety of our soldiers, for their safe return, and for an end to terrorism. Since Biblical times the nation of Iraq (known then as both Mesopotamia and later as Babylon) was the quintessential archetype for the “place of confusion” for the Jewish people. The nation we call Iraq today was known in Biblical times as “Bavel,” and means both “confusion” and “withering.” In fact, the English word “babble” meaning “confused talking” comes from the Babylonian superpower that challenged Israel’s right to exist as a nation twenty-five hundred years ago.

In Genesis Chapter 11 a story is told that “the whole earth was of one language…. And they said, ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven….’ And Hashem said, ‘Behold, the people are one…nothing will be restrained from them which they have schemed to do….So the Lord scattered them abroad…and they left off the building of the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel, because Hashem did there confuse the language….” Herein lies the secret for understanding the inner meaning of Babylon: it is a form of arrogance and confused thinking when any of us think we can “reach to heaven” with our material possessions and creations. The rabbis of the Talmud taught us to see Babylon as an archetype that could be applied to every generation.

The mystics in Jewish tradition teach us to take the archetype of Babylon one step further – right to our own personal lives. Babylon becomes the place of the confusion that each of us experiences in our own lives: spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and politically. For instance, when we build towers to “reach to heaven” through an intellect separated from G-d we are, so to speak, serving the gods of Babylon. When we seek material possessions or power devoid of Torah ethics we are living in the confused world of Babylon. Yet, paradoxically, the land of Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) was also a place of origin for the Jewish people. The Garden of Eden was partially on that land, and it was in the city of Ur where Abraham and Sarah heard the call to “go forth” to a land that G-d would show them. Later in Jewish history we were taken into captivity after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s Temple. He took tens of thousands of Jews as slaves to cities like Baghdad and Falluja which became the places of “confused” identity for our people. Why? Because as horrible as our enslavement was we were permitted to set up what became the greatest academies of learning in Jewish history. Even today the most popular edition of the Talmud is called the Babylonian Talmud.

In recent weeks the battle for the Iraqi city of Falluja has been at the top of the news. More than twenty-five hundred years ago, during the rule of the Babylonian empire the city of Falluja was one of the greatest centers for Jewish learning, and was known as Pumbeditha. It was there that we learned how to analyze and interpret – intellectual skills that later became a hallmark of Judaism. It was, in fact, in Babylon that the Jewish people gained detailed secular learning in subjects ranging from music to astronomy. Most scholars agree that Torah trope1 was developed in Babylon. Most agree that the names of the Hebrew months, and even the names of the archangels were learned in Babylon. What a paradox! Something bad (captivity) was transforming into something good (learning) – something that would help preserve the Jewish people for the next few thousand years.

I’m sure this transformation was “confusing” to our people, just as many of us are confused today when we hear the news. Yet, I believe that the Bible teaches that something good will also come from all this “confusion.” On the spiritual plane the second war in Iraq is a world war against both confusion and arrogance, and it could be that something incredible (peace and justice) will be coming out of all the pain and fear we are now experiencing. There seems to be a Divine message that arises out of the war in Iraq: whether you are conservative or liberal; whether you were for the war or against the war – do not be arrogant! Do not be confused! Rabbi Simon Jacobson recently wrote that “The real war – which is going on now for thousands of years, tracing back to the battles between Ishmael, Isaac, Esau and Jacob – is an ideological one: between matter and spirit, between the Divine and the universe – a war to make our peace with G-d and to discover unity between our natural lives and our Divine mission statement….Saying up is down and down is up, that’s Babel. Making absurd comparisons of Sharon to Hitler or Bush to Saadam, that’s Babel regardless of who you voted for.

Isn’t “saying up is down and down is up” what we hear from commentators and representatives from both the Left and Right today? From exaggerated claims and scandalous comments made by members of all the political parties, to the near paranoid conspiracy theories one hears – this is all part of Babel; all a part of our personal exile into Babylon; in the inner land of confusion. Babel is a description of the archetypal energy that exists in every one of us, in every culture, and in every nation. It is the force that divides people through confusion. The opposite of Babel is shalom, the Hebrew word that comes from a word root meaning “wholeness.” Shalom means that the whole, both sides of an issue, must be accounted for, and that people representing each side of an important issue actually need each other in order to fulfill G-d’s will in our world. Babel is “babble” because it divides and polarizes people in ways that are counterproductive and destructive. Shalom brings people together, even people who disagree – especially people who disagree! That is why shalom is so important in our era and why Babel must be corrected and transformed.

The archetypal struggle between Israel and Babylon is a struggle between those of us willing to wrestle with the complex, in-between, grey areas of truth, and those of us who confuse complex issues with nasty language, half-truths, hyperbole, and sloganeering. Let us be very, humble and maintain hope for the great redemption and cultural transformation that is happening before our eyes. It is written in Isaiah 63:1, “Who is this coming from Edom2, with sullied garments from Basra3? For a day of vengeance is in My heart and the year of My redemption has come.” To those of us on the political left – our garments are sullied! To those of us on the political right – our garments are sullied! Isaiah’s words imply a profound, world karmic balancing when he speaks of G-d’s “day of vengeance,” and yet the message is ultimately of hope as he quotes G-d speaking of “the year of My redemption.”

The metaphor that Rabbi Simon Jacobson,4 uses is that Esau has “two faces:” a face of sanctity since he is the twin of Jacob and the son of Issac and Rebecca, and a face of materialism. Just as Issac and Ishmael represent the struggle between Jews and Muslims in the world today, so Esau and Jacob represent the struggle and ultimate reunion between Europe, America, and the West with the Jewish people, and all other minorities who identify themselves with Jacob. European nations have always had “two faces” when it came to the Jewish people. At times we were welcome in the countries where we lived after the Diaspora, at other time we were the victims of pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and ultimately the Holocaust.

During Talmudic times (two thousand years ago) the rabbis associated Edom with the Roman Empire, or any nation or individual who exalted materialism over spirituality, military might over reason, and personal gain over justice. Yet at the end of the Jacob and Esau story5 the two brothers seem to reconcile their differences, and they form a kind of truce or peace treaty. But the story has a dangling conclusion because their is implied a future reunion6 of the brothers which never took place during their lifetimes. There are many of who sense that the world is still awaiting the complete reunion of these two brothers, and that current events on the world scene may be pointing to such a reunion very soon.

It could be said that the repentance of Esau takes place whenever force (the aggressive and materialistic side of Esau) is used for a moral, G-dly purpose, such as the defeat of fascism during World War II, or in the Cold War against communist tyranny during the second half of the twentieth-century. According to Rabbi Jacobson, Esau today is represented by Western culture, and in particular by Christianity. We know from history that the West certainly has two faces: the shadow side of Christianity produced the Crusades, Inquisition, the near genocide of Native Americans, colonialism, the brutal enslavement of Blacks, and the Holocaust. Yet the other face of Esau has been the incredible side of Western culture that has produced all the Torah-based institutions and values we associate with our democratic systems of justice and governance: freedom to dissent, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, egalitarianism, pluralism, etc.). My teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, may his memory be a blessing, taught that in preparation for this reunion the Jewish people should call Esau “Uncle Esau,” so as to welcome him back to the family. The suggestion made me laugh when I first heard it, but Reb Shlomo was serious – Uncle Esau, hmm!

In every instance where there is a successful struggle for civil and human rights in America (women’s rights; the union movement and worker’s rights; minority civil rights; environmentalism; handicap access, etc.) Uncle Esau takes one step closer to coming home. This submission to Holiness and Justice by Power represents the true reunion of Esau to his brother Jacob – of Christianity and Western culture to all minorities as symbolized by the Jewish people. The archetypal struggle between Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau is being played out before our eyes. America represents Esau in the process of redeeming himself and returning to Jacob. Europe, as portrayed by Rabbi Jacobson, represents the side of Esau that is still struggling with its own brutal past of religious and racial intolerance, and a very spotty record in regard to the Jews. President Saadat of Egypt, may his memory be a blessing, represented the possibility of healing between the Issac and Ishmael. May their arise in all the Middle Eastern nations, and among the Palestinians, Muslim leaders of such vision and courage once again!

Right now, regardless of our personal opinions about the war in Iraq, our soldiers need our prayers and gratitude; the citizens of Iraq need our prayers. President Allawi7 needs our prayers for the success of the upcoming elections. President Karzai8 needs our prayers for the success of the burgeoning and vulnerable democracy that is emerging in Afghanistan. Our president needs our prayers. Regardless of our personal political positions I hope that all of us can pray for the speedy capture of al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Laden. I hope that all of us can pray for the emergence of democratic, visionary, and moderate leadership for the Palestinians. And we need each other’s prayers. We need to davven for each other especially when we disagree with each other – and not in a patronizing way, not in a haughty, arrogant, self-righteous way. We need to all humble ourselves before the Living G-d, and declare “May Your will be done!”

During the past few years I have heard comments about Israel from people with otherwise progressive political ideas that have deeply troubled me. Not because their comments were critical of the state of Israel – after all, the obligation of the citizen of any democracy is self-criticism. If you want to hear criticism of Israel you need go no further than Israelis themselves. They are the only nation in the Middle East blessed with a constitution that assures and protects pluralism, egalitarianism, diversity, freedom to dissent, freedom for all religions to assemble, and for the inalienable right and obligation to criticize and protest.

The comments that have troubled me have been based upon beliefs that are utterly confused, utterly from the spiritual realm of Babel! How can bright, emotionally sensitive people display such a dangerous confusion of emotion and reason; a confusion of facts with slogans? In this past year alone I have heard Israel accused of practicing ethnic cleansing, slave labor, racism, apartheid, Naziism, all sorts of brutal human rights abuses, genocide, and a holocaust against the Palestinians. All of us have reason to be critical of this or that Israeli policy under this or that Israeli Prime Minister. In fact our holy Torah commands us to be bold and courageous in the face of power when their is injustice in anyplace in the world. But slander, exaggeration, hyperbole, gossip, mockery, absurd comparisons, making statements of moral equivalency where there is no equivalency – these are symptoms of Babylon; these are the battles we must wage in our own communities in the second war in Iraq; and the war each of us must fight within ourselves against arrogance and confusion. Anyone who equates President Bush with Saadam Hussain, or Ariel Sharon with Hitler, is under the spell of Babylon.

Someday, G-d willing, Saadam Hussain will stand trial under a fair system of justice in a newly democratic Iraq. I hope that during his trial the handful of Jews who remain in Iraq, out of hundreds of thousands who once thrived there, will be able to come into the courtroom just to read the words of the prophet Isaiah9 who wrote, “That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, ‘How hath the oppressor ceased! The golden city ceased!’” But even more, I hope and pray for a time of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation for all the children of Jacob, Ishmael, and Esau in the Middle East – for the long awaited reunion of the children of Abraham.

Little by little this seems to be what is unfolding on the world scene right now. Our own inner work is simply to defeat our own confusion so that we can make the correct political decisions along the way. We need to be willing to form new alliances, and always follow the idealistic vision of our Torah – the vision that guided Rev. Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement; the vision that Moses followed when he confronted Pharaoh; and the vision that our father Jacob followed when he and his brother wept at their reunion. The Holy One is offering all the children of Abraham (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) a vision of justice and reconciliation once again. We, who are the living embodiment of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Sarah and Hagar, have arrived at a pivotal moment in history. We seem to be enacting the final scene on the world stage that could lead to the messianic era of peace and justice that we all yearn for.

In Psalm 137 it is written, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion….If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill…” The Psalmist calls us to remember Jerusalem, to remember, and not to be confused, and not to permit the fear and anger to guide our lives. Let us work for peace, pray for peace, and support our friends in Israel today who are living and dying for nothing less than peace. Let us support all our friends in all the nations of the world who are risking their lives for democracy, justice, pluralism, and freedom. Right now there are Muslims ready to die (and many probably will) for a reformation of their religion; and for true pluralism within their cultures; and for democracy within their governments. Let us keep these courageous children of Ishmael and Esau in our prayers, and pledge them our support. After all, they are our cousins! Ishmael was beloved by our father Abraham and Esau was beloved by our father Issac – we should do no less.

Finally, let us never forget the words of prophet Isaiah what he wrote10 regarding Israel, Egypt, and the nations that were once part of the Assyrian Empire (the land where the modern nations of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq are situated today) during the 9th. and 8th. centuries BCE. Let us raise this seemingly impossible prophesy as a banner of hope for all the children of Abraham: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will serve with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria – a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, ‘Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.’” May the Holy One bless each of us to have the courage to begin building that highway today – some of us through diplomacy and dialogue, others through music and art, and some through prayer. Please G-d, may Israel be seen for what it has the potential to really be – “…a blessing in the midst of the land.”

1The ancient system of musical notation used when chanting from the Torah
2In the book of Genesis Edom is another name for Jacob’s fraternal twin brother, Esau.
3Basra is an ancient port city in southern Iraq – close to Kuwait, and close to Abraham and Sarah’s home in the city of Ur.
5Genesis 33:1-4
6Genesis 33:14
7The current, interim leader of Iraq
8The newly, democratically elected president of Afghanistan
9Isaiah 14:4
10Isaiah 19:22-25

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