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Parshas Chayei Sara (5776)

Maimonides and the Arabs

At the end of this week’s Torah portion we find a listing of Abraham’s son Ishmael’s twelve sons (see Genesis 25:12-16). These sons are the progenitors of the Arab nations of today.

It is interesting to note that even though for most of his life, Ishmael was a menace to the spiritual health and very life of his brother Isaac, as well as being thoroughly corrupt and evil, to the extent that his own father Abraham had to send him away, at the very end of his life however, Ishmael fully repented and was considered to be a tzaddik (very righteous). This can be seen from the fact that he gave precedence to his much younger brother Isaac at the burial of their father Abraham (see Rash”i in his commentary to Genesis 25:9)

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Ishmael’s descendants, many of whom have remained unrepentant and have relentlessly persecuted and oppressed their Jewish cousins throughout the centuries.

One such period of persecution was during the time of Maimonides (1135-1204), and which prompted him to write his famous Letter to Yemen.

[The “Letter to Yemen” (Hebrew:אגרת תימן Iggeres Teiman) was an important communication that Maimonides sent to the Yemenite Jews. It is estimated to have been written in 1168. It arose because of religious persecution and heresy in 12th century Yemen. The average Jewish population in Yemen for many centuries was very small. The Jews were scattered throughout the country, but were successful in business and acquired books about the history of their faith.

There was a revolt against Saladin as sultan in the last quarter of the 12th century, and Arab Muslims began to persecute the Jewish faith in Yemen at this time. At the same time, a man began preaching a syncretistic religion that combined Judaism and Islam, and claimed that the Bible had foretold his coming as a prophet.

The persecution and increasing apostasy led one of Yemen's most respected Jewish scholars, Jacob ben Nathanael, to write for counsel to Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. Maimonides replied in a Letter written in Arabic. This letter made a tremendous impression on Yemenite Jewry, and effectively stopped the new religious movement. It also served as a source of strength, consolation and support for the faith of the Jews of Yemen during a period of violent persecution and religious intolerance in their country.]

Here is a brief snippet of the Letter to Yemen, in which Maimonides describes the persecution and suffering of the Jews living in Arab lands, as well as all the lies and prevarications to which the Jews were subjected on a constant basis:

Remember, my co-religionists, that on account of the vast number of our sins, G-d has hurled us in the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael [the Arabs], who hate us and persecute us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us, as Scripture has forewarned us, “Our enemies themselves shall judge us” (Deuteronomy 32:31). Never did a nation oppress, degrade, debase and hate us as much as they. Therefore when David, King of Israel, inspired by the Holy Spirit, envisaged the future tribulations of Israel, he bewailed and lamented their lot only in the Kingdom of Ishmael, and prayed in their behalf, for their deliverance, as is implied in the verse, “Woe is me, that I sojourn with Meschech, that I dwell beside the tents of Kedar.” (Psalms 120:5). Note the distinction between Kedar and the children of Ishmael, for the ‘Madman’ is of the lineage of the children of Kedar as they readily admit. Daniel alludes only to our humiliation and degradation “like the dust in threshing” suffered at the hands of the Kingdom of Ishmael, may it speedily be vanquished, when he says, “And some of the host and of the stars it cast down to the ground, and trampled upon them.” (8:10). Although we were dishonored by them beyond human endurance, and had to put up with their fabrications, yet we behaved like him who is depicted by the inspired prophet, “But I am like a deaf man, I do not hear, like a mute who does not open his mouth.” (Psalms 38:14). Similarly our sages instructed us to bear the prevarications and lies of Ishmael in silence. They found a cryptic allusion for this attitude in the names of his sons “Mishma, Dumah, and Massa” (see Genesis 25:14), which was interpreted to mean, “Listen, be silent, and endure.” We have acquiesced, both old and young, to inure ourselves to humiliation, as Isaiah instructed us “I submitted my body to those who smite and my cheeks to those who pluck...” (50:6). All this notwithstanding, we do not escape their intense oppression and ongoing attacks. No matter how much we suffer and elect to remain at peace with them, they stir up strife and sedition, as [King] David described for us, “I am peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalms 120:7).

It’s amazing when you think about the fact that these powerful words which were sent by Maimonides to the Jews of Yemen almost a thousand years ago could just as easily have been written for our own times, and especially Maimonides’ closing words: “No matter how much we suffer and elect to remain at peace with them, they stir up strife and sedition”.

I think that we can all agree that the Jewish people have “listened”, “been silent”, and “endured” enough of the lies and provocations of our Ishmaelite cousins throughout the centuries. We can only continue to pray to our Father in Heaven to put an end to all our suffering with the coming of the Messiah, speedily and in our day. Amen.

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