Photo Credit: Courtesy Sotheby's
Ancient Torah scroll

Once upon a time, Jews and Palestinians made a lasting peace treaty.

The bad relations between Yitzchak the Jew and Avimelekh the Plishti begins with Plishti generosity and a Jewish lie.  Yitzchak leaves a famine-stricken Negev to settle in Avimelekh’s city Gerar. He is a refugee from food insecurity, but economically self-sufficient, and is given a green card immediately.  However, Gerarian immigration officers watch him carefully, and soon discover that his application falsely described his wife Rivkah as his sister.

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Avimelekh confronts him, and Yitzchak provides no explanation or apology.  Yet rather than expelling Yitzchak, Avimelekh grants him royal protection.  But when Yitzchak prospers exceptionally, Avimelekh orders him to depart.  When Yitzchak tries to remain in the general vicinity, Plishtim begin filling his wells or denying him access to water, and Plishti shepherds fight with Yitzchak’s shepherds.  Finally, Yitzchak moves to Rechovot, and then back to Beersheva.

By this point there is plenty of room for bitterness and suspicion on both sides. When a Plishti delegation arrives in Bereshit 26:26, Yitzchak greets them – apparently before they have a chance to say anything – by saying “Why have you come to me!  You have hated me, and you sent me away from you!”  Yet 26:31 records that Yitzchak sent the delegation away after mutual oaths, “and they went from him in peace”.   What enables the movement from recrimination to covenant and peace?

My mother Dr. Molly Klapper z”l’s edited a collection titled ’Definitive Creative Impasse-Breaking Techniques in Mediation.’  The chapter she wrote in that collection offers several negotiation insights that seem directly relevant.  To take an obvious example, section 1:33 is headed “Bring Along Snacks”, with the comment that food is especially useful when parties in a negotiation are tiring.  And indeed, in 26:3o Yitzchak throws a mishteh at night, and the next morning the negotiations are concluded smoothly.

Perhaps more profoundly, (section 1.5) mediators understand that the venting of strong emotions is often a positive sign – it (section 1:10) “puts all the issues on the table” and therefore enables holistic negotiations that genuinely address both parties’ feelings as well as their interests.  Otherwise, negotiations often hit impasses that seem like unjustified nitpicking or stubbornness.  Thus both Yitzchak’s initial outburst, and the Plishtim’s pointed rejoinder that Yitzchak owes them gratitude for not taking advantage of his earlier vulnerability, were necessary precursors to peace rather than obstacles.

It is also important (section 1:9) to address whether the negotiation is about a one-time deal, or rather about a specific episode in a longstanding relationship which one or both parties have an interest in continuing.  Here, the traditional commentators note inter alia that Yitzchak went to Avimelekh because their fathers had established a covenant, and it was in Yitzchak’s interest to maintain the family option of going to Gerar during famines.  (Indeed, there should be no surprise that no Plishti touched Rivkah even when Yitzchak said she was his sister; they knew all about Abrahamites and sisters).

We should also briefly note the power of Avimelekh’s bald acknowledgement that he has come not to apologize but rather “because Hashem is with you”.  Midrashim comment that the Plishtim were initially jealous when Yitzchak outprospered them, but after his departure, they realized that his presence had caused them to prosper as well.  R. Yosef Ibn Caspi unsentimentally summarizes the Plishtim’s motives: “the masses only come to a man when they have need of him . . . Here we have learned an important matter about the nature of the world, namely that the successful man is the one who is honored and valued and loved by many, whereas the reverse is true in times of trouble, and therefore Avimelekh’s response to Yitzchak was compelling”.  This kind of hardheadedness is useful when it generates realism rather than cynicism; there were no illusions or pretenses on either side.  Avimelekh and Yitzchak were each capable of “distinguishing between positions and interests” (section 1:26).

These are all negotiating pointers – but do Avimelekh and Yitzchak realize all these on their own, without mediation?  There is a longstanding question as to why Avimelekh’s delegation includes “Achuzat Mreieihu”.  Some see Achuzat as a name, and suggest he was a counselor; others suggest that Avimelekh traveled with a posse, and achuzat mean “group”.  But Meshekh Chokhmah suggests that Avimelekh brought along a group of people who had been Yitzchak’s friends in Grar, and perhaps opposed his being sent away.  This, of course, would have blunted the force of “You have hated me”, and perhaps it was that group which served the mediating function.

It is unwise to see contemporary events as exact replays of Biblical history.  But it is valuable to recognize that Torah and Mesorah offer narratives of hope as well as gloom about Jewish national relationships; it is not all about Esav hating Yaakov.  May we develop the capacity and merit to find realistic and therefore lasting paths to peace with all our fellows.

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