Va'yeira

When Life Reminds us of Torah; When Torah Reminds us of Life

Only seven Republican senators voted to convict the former president of inciting insurrection. That reminded me of the passage in the Book of Genesis (18:16-33) when Abraham argues with God: "Shall not the Judge of all the world do justice?” Should God really destroy all of Sodom for its sin of hating foreigners? What if there were decent people among its citizens who will die in the disaster? Abraham starts, “What if there were 50 decent people; would that be enough to spare the city?” God agrees to refrain. What about 40? 30? 20? 10?

 And then Abraham stops. He doesn’t ask God to save the city if there were seven decent citizens, or five, or one. Why not? Because Abraham and God both know it takes at least 10 people to transform an evil society for the good. Ten who will have each others’ backs, ten who will hold and heal each other when they are wounded, ten who will love each other, ten who will protect each other, ten who will help each other speak out against tyranny.

There were not ten Republican senators to stand together, and their absence portends the ruin of their party. May God grant its ruin will not bring down fire, flood, and famine on our lovely and beloved planet – – as Sodom went up in smoke.

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The Torah portion this Shabbat (Terumah, Exodus 25-27) describes Moses on the mountain listening to God describe the portable Mishkan or Shrine of the Presence that the Israelites would learn to carry in their journey through the wilderness. When Moses cannot quite understand the description given in words, God provides the first Power Point, showing pictures of golden implements, scarlet and purple hangings, the details of its beauty.

The people themselves were to gather, to sew, to smelt, to tie the pieces together with grommets, to untie and retie them when the Shrine of the Presence needed to move. 

For years, it seemed to me this was an overdoing of sacred Art. And then a member of my congregation came back from the first Gay Pride gathering in Washington DC. She described how thousands of people had sewn thousands of squares of cloth in gorgeous color or black mourning, each remembering someone who had died of AIDS, each with grommets at its corners to tie one square to another when the gigantic Quilt was ready for display, ready to be untied when the Quilt was ready to be moved to some new city.

The word "grommet" transfixed me. The Quilt was a Mishkan, a Shrine. The Mishkan was a Quilt. Each was the first defiant acts of beauty of people who had been closed in, in narrow slavery; of people who had been closed in, in narrow closets. The Quilt, the Mishkan, were triumphs of liberty. Each was portable, meant to be carried to those who had not yet heard the message: Freedom! Joy, even in the midst of sorrow. Beauty! 

The abence of ten made disgrace, threatened ruin. The Presence of thousands made beauty and freedom. Each a lesson for our time.

Dancing in God's Earthquake: Sodom, Lot, & America Today

I’ve said that on Tuesday mornings I would post a quote from my new book, Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion . This isn’t a quote, but reflections from the chapter called “The Sin of Sodom and the Sin of Lot.” (See Genesis chapter 19 for the biblical story.) It fits our discussion of how to welcome the newly arrived into a fuller American democracy, while respecting those who feel they have been forgotten although they used to think they were the heart of American society.

The sin of Sodom was that they hated foreigners. They barely tolerated Abraham’s cousin Lot, and when he welcomed two strangers to his house they mobbed the house and threatened to rape the visitors. The point was not sex, though much of Christian thought was that their sin was homosexuality; the sin was hatred. But Lot committed a sin that was the sin of Sodom upside-down: he offered to let them rape his own daughters if they would let the foreign visitors alone.

With a little stretch we can see our own dilemma: Shall we save the community that thinks we have forgotten the mystic ties that bind us together as friends and family, or save the newcomers for the sake of sacred justice? Have "the forgotten" fallen into hatred? Or are they frightened, desperate? Have the justice-focused forgotten that we all are entitled to justice, not only the newcomers? 

Lot and his family were saved, according to the story – remember, it’s a story! --  when his visitors struck the mob with a light so intense it blinded them from attacking. Already a paradox. A light that darkened.  What might that mean for us? How can we insist that our businesses stop pouring CO2 into the air that burns, floods, and kills our families – our children --  while affirming the cultures that believe global scorching is a hoax?

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A letter from Karen Flotte, a member of the Justice Gardeners Team that works closely with the Central Reform Congregation of St Louis and with the nearby Black community to discern what people need and want to eat – and share in making it possible for all who hunger to tend and feed themselves from the communal garden. And who is a member of the Program Coordinator team for The Shalom Center.

This is a deeply personal post and not meant to be prescriptive for anyone. 

As the sun was setting yesterday evening, I found myself in a park weeping.  Weeping over the nation torn asunder we find ourselves in.  My heart as broken as our people.  

 Yesterday morning, I saw a post asking about a photo of Republican voters, “Who are these people?”  I immediately thought, “People I love.  My family, dear life-long friends, my neighbors.”  My grandparents and parents who taught me to protect those most vulnerable by the ways they lived and acted.  My friend of nearly 40 years who held my hand offering emotional and spiritual support and medical wisdom as my sister and father were dying.  A friend with whom I can consistently reach across the aisle and speak heart to heart about our different perspectives with respect and love. 

My neighbor who cares compassionately and practically for all he meets, especially the elders in my neighborhood.  The neighbor who I told my son would protect us with his own life when John Wesley asked if extremists would try to shoot us. 

I come from an all-American family, Jewish, Christian and nones; conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats as well as those who do not claim a space on that spectrum; urban and rural; queer and cis-gender straight.  Reflecting a part of the erev rav or great mixed multitude that comprises our nation.

 For many years, my friend Rabbi Randy Fleisher has been working with the story of Jacob and Esau, the story of a generation divided, of fear and of hatred.  In the few short years I have known Randy, he has taught this story in different ways, examining it deeply, wrestling with its meaning for our time.  In this story as Jacob returns anticipating meeting his brother Esau, he wrestles for a full night before crossing over to meet his brother.

 I have spent the last few days wrestling within.  If the election season can be compared to the High Holidays of my adopted tradition, Judaism, I feel like I am standing in Yom Kippur, taking a full accounting of my soul.  I live my life on this truth, that the wholeness of the community depends on the wholeness of the entire community.  The entire community.  

I need to take a full accounting of my soul.    How have I personally missed the mark?  What are the ways that I have allowed my heart to harden?  How have the way I speak about my fears, values and perspectives led to alienation, oppression of others?  Has my own speech and thinking contributed to violence, hatred and divide?   

How do I need to listen deeper?  How do I bring compassion and healing to myself, to others?  My inner work, inner healing is necessary if I want to be an active participant in tikkun olam or repair of the world and our nation in the days that follow.

Four years ago on the Shabbat after the election, Rabbi Mem Movshin (of blessed memory), who did the teaching that day, posed this question to all of us, “how will you be a blessing in the days to come?”  Jacob and Esau are able to cross the divide and embrace in an act of blessing.  I fear that if I am unable to do the work of inner healing, of opening my own heart to the entire community -- person to person, face, to face -- the forces which have torn our people asunder will, in fact, win.  As I enter this Shabbat after the election, I ask myself Rabbi Mem’s question again, “how will I be a blessing in the days to come.”  And I carry deep within my heart this prayer by St. Francis which I learned in my parent’s home:

Yah, make me an instrument of your peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

 

O Divine Breath of Life,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

Amen.

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A glimmer of answers, a glow of light to let us blur our differences and let us see what we might share:

 Rabbi Doris Dyen of Pittsburgh, from one of the congregations that met in the Tree of Life building where murder struck two years ago, recommends two groups that are working to make dialogue possible across what has been our splitness:

 Braver Angels --  https://braverangels.org/ 

The organization was originally called "Better Angels," drawing from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.  They facilitate structured "red / blue" conversations between groups of ordinary people with opposing political views.  They also provide training for conversation moderators.

 

Multi-Faith Neighbors Network --  https://www.mfnnetwork.com/ 

This organization was started by an Evangelical Christian pastor Bob Roberts in Texas, a Muslim leader (also in Texas I believe?) Imam Mohamed Magid, and Rabbi David Saperstein.  I participated in their 6-week workshop of guided conversations this summer, taught by Pastor Roberts and Imam Magid, which brought together local spiritual leaders from the three Abrahamic faiths here in Allegheny County. 

Pastor Roberts, Imam Magid, and Rabbi Saperstein lead these workshops all over the country:  they want to get the spiritual leaders talking/listening to each other, and attending each other's religious services if possible, activities which are then followed up by their congregations doing community service projects together, so that the congregants also begin to establish rapport. 

The long-range goal is to build "resilient communities" where people are working cross-culturally for constructive change together on things they can agree on.  Our chavurah has since participated in two interfaith community food distribution projects in Pittsburgh with the churches/mosques whose leaders I got to know through the Network workshop series.  

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There will be more as we explore this question, for life and not for death.  How can we pursue justice and love at the same time, when parts of our people have such different ideas of what both of them mean?  Can we create forms of action that almost all of us agree on, in our differences?

Meanwhile, if you want to explore this and other questions in the glowing light of Torah transformed: Gloria Steinem, Ruth Messinger, Rev. William Barber; Rabbis Art Green, Jonah Pesner, and Jill Hammer; Bill McKibben, Marge Piercy, and Rev. Jim Wallis have all read and praised Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion. You can order it from The Shalom Center or from Orbis Books. Click to --

https://theshalomcenter.org/content/ordering-dancing-gods-earthquake-rabbi-arthur  This book is the harvest of my whole life-experience – and like a harvest, intended not only to draw on the past but to feed the future.

Torah This Week: Seeing God in the Trees

The Torah portion this coming Shabbat is called “Va’yera” after its first word, which means “was seen” or “became visible.”  The opening sentence (Genesis 18:1) reads like this:

“Now YHWH [the Interbreathing Spirit of the World] was seen by him [by Avraham} in the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day.”

 First let me say, “in the oaks of Mamre” is an unconventional but utterly reasonable translation of "b'elonai.”  Most translators say “by the oaks” because they want to point to three men who are about to appear as messengers of God, making God visible, and they are uncomfortable with the notion that God may be visible in the trees themselves.  But most of the time in the Bible,” b'means “in.”

 How could God be visible in that forest? If “YHWH” is the Breath of Life, the Wind of change, the Spirit of the world, then the rustling of leaves in that forest, blown by the Wind, would make visible the Wind that is about to change the life of Abraham and Sarah and the world.

 Secondly, in our own generation the scientists at last have taught us– – and perhaps long ago wise human beings knew the deep truth – that trees use chemicals to communicate with each other, that they help each other when some of them are in danger, that they breathe out the oxygen we need to breathe in and they breathe in the CO2 we breathe out.

 When in Deuteronomy 20:19 Torah asks, “Are the trees of the field human?” we thought the question was tongue-in-cheek and that the answer was obviously No. But perhaps if being “human” means communicating wisdom across generations the answer is obviously “Yes!” (Consult Richard Powers’ insightful novel The Overstory.)

 I have several times led prayer circles where I have invited people as part of the service to seek out a tree and listen to it breathe, then hear the tree’s own prayer, then come back to the community and share the tree’s prayer. When a dozen people do this, each prayer is unique, the prayers are as different as you can imagine --- and profoundly “spiritual.”

 Finally, how many of us have seen God become visible in a forest, a river, a bird, a cloud of fireflies? Time for us to welcome these bearers of life into the minyan, the quorum that makes prayer possible. Indeed, there could be no minyan without them.

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P.S.--  I invite all of you to "like" the Shalom Center Facebook page, where I share updates about our important work for eco/social justice and healing of our woundeed Earth. -- including video of this and other Torah teachings.  Like it here: https://www.facebook.com/TheShalomCenter

“Avraham -- IBRAHIM!” : Eid Mubarak & Shanah Tovah

During the next month, Muslims and Jews throughout the world will celebrate a transformative moment in the life of Abraham, whom both traditions see as their most ancient sage and teacher.

The story begins with God calling “Abraham,”  who answers, “Here I am!” He remains steadfast in deep faith even when God tests him by telling him to sacrifice his beloved son. But when the terrible moment is actually upon them, God's messenger calls “Abraham -- -- ABRAHAM!” Why twice? Because Abraham had committed himself so deeply to do what gave him great pain that he did not stop the knife from falling until God called again.

This was the moment of transformation that both traditions celebrate as the birthing of their vision.  And it teaches us that today, even in a dangerous moment in the history of America and of our Mother Earth, even when some of our leaders are bringing down the knife upon our children and grandchildren, we the People can still turn our ears and our hearts to hearing the Voice of justice and compassion. And transform our future.

Muslims will honor this story beginning the evening of August 21, with Eid al-Adha --  Festival of the Offering --  in which the key element is sharing food with the poor, in memory of Abraham’s offering of a ram as a substitute for his son. Jews will honor it beginning the evening of September 9 till the evening of September 11, with Rosh Hashanah, by reading in the Torah the stories of Abraham’s relationships with his two sons --  stories of danger and pain that end in survival and success.

The ancient tale -- as often happens in a family remembering some crucial moment in their history – takes on different versions in the two traditions, and in Christianity as well. Many Jews, Christians, and Muslims have focused on the differences as a source of enmity. I have had the joyful opportunity to work with an extraordinary Christian leader and an extraordinary Muslim leader to weave together the different versions --  not ignoring the differences, but seeing them as complementary teachings of different spiritual truths.

We turned that effort into a book published by Beacon Press,  The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

My comrades in that effort were Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic feminist, working toward the transformation of her own tradition and community – and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti (Dr Neil Douglas-Klotz), a Sufi Muslim teacher of the Aramaic spirituality and culture that gave birth to Rabbinic Judaism and to Christianity. Around each of these teachers has grown up a world-wide community of spiritual searchers.

Each of us wrote ten essays on how and what we learn from the whole saga of Abraham’s family as it appears in the Torah (me), in the Christian Testament (Chittister), and in the Quran (Chisti). Then together we wove the story of Abraham’s and his family’s life.

When we had finished writing, we shared our work with Karen Armstrong, still another world-renowned teacher of the history and meaning of religion. She wrote a profound preface for the book.

During the past several years I have heard from synagogues, churches, and mosques that exploring the book has opened new understandings for their members. Since our generation remains caught in a history when many Jews, many Christians, and many Muslims see the other traditions as their enemies, it may be useful to take this season as a time to read and discuss it.

Though no Christian festival is as focused on Abraham as the Jewish and Muslim ones are, the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, may appeal to many Christians as a relevant time. Francis opposed the Crusades --  an act of heresy and treason in his day – and studied with Muslims to enrich his Christian prayer.

You can order copies of the book by clicking here:

http://www.beacon.org/The-Tent-of-Abraham-P657.aspx

As a member of The Shalom Center community, you can achieve a 10% discount from the cost of the book by inserting the word “tent” (with no quote marks) when in making the purchase you are invited to insert a promotional code.

Beacon wrote:

 "The Tent of Abraham is the first book to tell the entire story of Abraham and to reenergize it as a basis for peace. It explores in accessible language the mythic quality and the teachings of reconciliation that are embedded in the Torah, the Qur’an, and the [Christian] Bible."

The Binding of Isaac & Black Lives Matter: Bodies in Fear

Transcript of Eric Garne's last words as he died in a poice chokehold

[This remarkable Dvar Torah was given by Rabbi Tamara Cohen on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5776 (2015) in the Dorshei Derech Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. The Torah reading for that day is on the Binding and near-death of Isaac. Rabbi Cohen connected that story with the deaths of unarmed Blacks at the hands of police –-  deaths that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. In  doing so, she helps us deepen our understanding of action for eco-social justice as a profound spiritual journey. [Rabbi Cohen is Director of Innovation for Moving Traditions. She has been a liturgist for Ma'yan in shaping its feminist Passover Seder, and five years ago was the Barbara Bick Memorial Fellow of The Shalom Center. She wrote "Eicha for the Earth," an English-language Lament for the Earth modeled on the Book of Lamentations and occasioned by the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. [The graphic above is a transcript of Eric Garner's last words as he died in a police chokehold. There are other graphics as attachments. You can see the one above and those attached in full size by clicking on the title of this essay. The attachments  are “The Binding of Isaac” and “The Choking of Eric,” the first by Caravaggio and the second from a videocamera; and a baby held aloft in the midst of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Ferguson, MO. --  AW, editor]

By Rabbi Tamara Cohen

This Dvar Torah was born a few times over this year.

I think the first place it was born was in the powerful experience of giving birth to a beautiful baby --  who among many other things is a white Jewish boy with blond hair and blue eyes --   in a moment when the Black Lives Matter movement was reaching a new level, in a moment when the stories of parents mourning the deaths of their children of color due to police violence were all around me.

We took our son Kliel to a Hanukkah Black Lives Matter protest for his first outing. He was barely a month old. Why? In part because I wanted to be there and in part because I was struggling with how to allow myself the joy of this new baby knowing that all around America and Philadelphia and even Mt Airy, other parents were also celebrating new babies, babies with all different colors of eyes and skin and hair, and that all of us lovestruck parents, wanting to do everything for our children, feeling acutely aware of their vulnerability, also had different relationships to the vulnerability of our kids because of the systemic racism in the America in which these babies were being born.

 I remember waking up in the middle of the night to nurse and realizing

Yom Kippur Meets Eid al-Idha: Isaiah & Ishmael

Isaiah by Raphael

Tales of Spiritual Breakthrough

This coming Tuesday evening, September 22, 2015, the 26-hour fast of Yom Kippur begins. The next morning, Jews everywhere will read the outcry of the Prophet Isaiah, challenging and disrupting the official liturgy of Yom Kippur:

“Is this the fast I, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, demand of you? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry? To break off the handcuffs that oppressive power locks upon its prisoners?”

And on Wednesday evening, just as the fast is ending, there begins the Muslim Great Feast of Eid al-Idha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. It echoes the story of how Ibrahim prepared to offer up his son Ismail in response to God’s calling, and how at the last moment the Holy Voice told him to relent and he offered up a ram instead.

This memory, of course, shares the story that Jews have just last week retold on Rosh Hashanah– with the differences that often arise when different branches of a family remember a powerful family story.("Which son was it?")

Traditionally, on Eid al-Idha Muslim families buy a lamb to be slaughtered (as an echo of Ibrahim's ram), and divide its meat in thirds — one-third to the immediate family, one-third to the extended family, one-third to the poor — a teaching that might be heard as “Do not kill your children; feed the poor!”

A teaching to us all about war and compassion. A physical act carrying the same message as the Isaiah Haftarah for Yom Kippur.

The connections between the two sets of festivals beckon us into a new way of treating Torah-reading as an avenue toward seeking "tshuvah" (turning ourslves in a new, more ethical direction).

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews tradtionally read the story of  Abraham's expulsion of Ishmael from the family, and Ishmael's near-death in the wilderness, saved at the last moment by God's making visible a hidden wllspring. On the second day, the reading is about Abraham's willingness tp make a burnt-offering of his other son, Isaac, and Isaac's near-death on the mountain -- saved by God's Voice at the last moment.

Later in the Torah, there is a story of how the two sons reconnect (Gen. 25:7-11). After their father Abraham dies, they come togethr to bury him. For the first time, the Torah refers to them as partners.  We read this passage in the regular rhythm of the regular Shabbats. But  this story is not lifted up on a special festival, as are the two stories we read on Rosh Hashanah.

It would be a true act of healing to read this brief passage on Yom Kippur. Especially in a generation when there is a great deal of conflict between some of the descendants of Isaac and of Ishmael, this tale of reconciliation

Wellsprings of Life: Hagar & Rosh Hashanah

Hagar weeps as her son Ishmael apprpaches death from thirst

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish Torah-reading is Genesis  21. In it, Abraham’s second wife Hagar and his first son Ishmael are sent forth from Abraham’s family, with a leather-skin of water that is not enough to meet their needs in the dry wilderness.   In extremis, Hagar gently lays Ishmael beneath a tree and begins to weep as she fears his death.   (The Torah uses the word Tashlich  for this laying-down, teaching us that in the Rosh Hashanah ceremony of Tashlich we are not casting our misdeeds away into the flowing water, but seeking to transform their energies for the sake of Life, as Hagar did.)   Then, says the Torah,  Hagar’s eyes are opened, and she saw the wellspring that she names “Be¹er Lachai Roi, The Wellspring of the Living ONE Who Sees Me."   It saves their lives.

As I try to see this story, it seems to me that when Hagar’s eyes were opened, her tears poured forth so fully that she herself created the wellspring.   Today, all around the world we face the death of trees and the dearth of water, the deaths of many other life-forms and millions of our own Ishmaels.   Many parts of Earth are becoming as scarce of water as was the ancient Middle East. As our planet heats and scorches, our Mother Earth is parched and can no longer pour forth from her breasts the pure water that nurtures and sustains us.   May our own tears for Mother Earth pour forth to water the wellsprings of new life. May we open our eyes, and act!  -- act out of seeing the Living ONE Who Sees Us.

 May we pour forth the tears that make healing action possible!

And as Mother Hagar needed nourishment, so do those of us who draw on flowing Spirit to do the work of healing Mother Earth. Please click on the “Donate” banner on he Left margin, to pour forth as well the money that is also necessary if we are to make healing action possible.

ReNewing a Book for Rosh Hashanah: "The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope & Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims"

In 2004, as religious animosities worsened around the globe, I joined with Sister Joan Chittister, a world-renowned Benedictine nun, and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti (Neil Douglas-Klotz), a Muslim Sufi who has written a remarkable series of books on Aramaic, Gnostic, and Sufi spirituality --

-- to write a book called THE TENT OF ABRAHAM: STORIES OF HOPE AND PEACE FOR JEWS, CHRISTIANS, & MUSLIMS.

You can order the book and get a 20% discount from the regular price by going to -- http://www.beacon.org/The-Tent-of-Abraham-P657.aspx   and inserting the word "tent" (with no quote marks) when it asks for a code.

We sent the manuscript to Karen Armstrong. She was so excited by the book that she wrote a Preface for it.

It was (June 2006) published by Beacon Press and won an enthusiastic "Starred Review" from the Library Journal. That review and others are below.

As we once again approach Rosh Hashanah and prepare to read once again the troubling stories of the expulsion of Hagar & Ishmael from Abraham's family and Abraham's binding of Isaac for an offering to  God, we might see this book as a spur to deeper spiritual reflection on these stories.

The review just below appeared on the Web in August 2006. As you'll see at the end of the review, it especially praises the "fascinating" last chapter of the book, "Why Hagar Left." It does not mention that this chapter, and an essay on "How to Pitch the Tent" –- suggested approaches for how to bring together an interfaith gathering in depth, connecting in all Four Worlds -- are by Rabbi Phyllis Berman.

Yom Kippur as Transformation-time: 3 Keys to Unlock our Hearts

What the Shofar calls us to

Yom Kippur begins in the Western calendar on Tuesday evening, September 25, and ends the evening of September 26. In the Jewish calendar, it is  one of four festivals during the seventh lunar “moonth,” a sabbatical moonth for reflection and reconciliation. This year, we at The Shalom Center suggest three ways of enriching the celebration of Yom Kippur so as to encourage new connections between the Jewish community and other communities and the Earth itself — sharing our deepest values and our highest visions for the healing and transformation of our world toward what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

 
1. On Rosh HaShanah, we read the story of the estrangement between two families of Abraham – between his wife Sarah and her son Isaac, and his wife Hagar and her son Ishmael.

I believe the completion of the story (as it appears in Gen. 25: 8-11) should be read aloud in every synagogue on Yom Kippur. It is a story of reconciliation, which is what Yom Kippur is all about.

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