History repeats itself.
Many of the tragic events of today, weighing so heavily upon the Jewish people, seem hauntingly prefigured in the life of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. The Torah reports on a protracted war in the Middle East, pitting five local kings and their peoples against four neighboring kings and their city-states. In the course of the bloody conflict, Lot is taken hostage. Abraham promptly deploys a personal army of 318 retainers at his command, with the stated mission to rescue Lot from his unjust captivity, to reunite him with his family. To “Bring Him Home!”
Having succeeded in this cause, Abraham engages in sophisticated and sensitive diplomatic negotiations with his allies. Skeptical of their ultimate intentions and loyalties, he goes to considerable lengths to retain his independence and moral sovereignty. He is unwilling to be entirely beholden to any external party or potentate.
A later incident in Lot’s life is still more haunting. He and his family have taken up residence in Sodom. After Lot has welcomed three angelic guests into his home, we read: “The townspeople, the men of Sodom… gathered about the house” (Genesis 19:9), threatening violence against Lot and his loved ones, and in particular, against his indisputably innocent guests. Lot steps outside, alone, in an effort to de-escalate the conflict. After a heated exchange, the narrative continues:
“They pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door. But [Lot’s angelic guests] stretched out their hands and pulled him safely back into the house with them, and shut the door” (19:10).
The biblical image of an angry, hateful, violent mob pounding on the door of Abraham’s kinsman was sadly revisited just last week. Jewish students at Cooper Union — the renowned institution for engineering, architecture, and fine arts — were forced to barricade themselves in the school’s library as pro-Palestinian protesters, undeterred by ineffectual security, reportedly pounded on the doors, slammed anti-Zionist posters and Palestinian flags against the windows, and shouted anti-Jewish slogans and epithets. Jewish students (contemporary kin to Abraham) feared for their safety, and feared that these young 21st-century moral disciples of Sodom would break down the doors.
Alas, the Cooper Union confrontation is not an isolated incident. Pro-Hamas statements and protests and anti-Jewish violence and rhetoric are all resurgent, all proliferating.
The Cooper Union incident is particularly disturbing, however, not only because it so dramatically recalls a violent threat during the very first generations of Israelite history, as recorded in Scripture. The Cooper Union incident is particularly disturbing because of the distinguished history of that American institution of higher learning.
It was at Cooper Union that, in 1860, a little known and as yet unannounced presidential candidate named Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the longest and most ramified orations of his career: an address many historians credit directly with propelling him to the presidency. The address was an extended, highly detailed, and analytical moral and constitutional argument against slavery. Lincoln’s Cooper Union address, delivered in the presence of media titans Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant, was a call for moral clarity amid the ominous divisiveness and rancor plaguing a nation on the cusp of civil war.
Lincoln inveighed against those who would abandon the law and constitutional order to advance their own political interests:
“Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.”
Lincoln also pointed out the hypocrisy of those who sowed hate and division, violence and fear, and then blamed their victims and enemies for their own, dangerously destabilizing crimes.
Lincoln addressed himself to Southern slave owners, who fomented war against a free democracy they disdained and then proceeded to blame the conflict on the neighbors and perceived mortal enemies they themselves had attacked. He compared them to common thieves and robbers. In so doing, Abraham Lincoln accurately described the morally unhinged methods and the profoundly cynical rhetoric of Hamas today:
“A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’”
At Cooper Union, the future president called for national resolve in meeting existential threats.
Lincoln’s analysis in 1860 presciently speaks to the dire challenges facing the State of Israel today, with its citizens — men and women, elders and infants — held hostage in Hamas’s sprawling network of subterranean tunnels. Lincoln said:
“Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government, nor of dungeons to ourselves.”
Let us understand, as Lincoln understood, that it is the highwayman and not his victim, the terrorist and not the innocents he savages, who is the murderer and who bears the moral responsibility for the personal suffering, the humanitarian crisis, and the inevitable and tragic loss of innocent life that his ruthless attack so predictably — and perhaps purposefully — precipitates upon his own people.
Let us understand, as Lincoln understood, that there is no moral equivalency between those who willfully perpetrate murder and mayhem against a civilian population, and those who are compelled to go to war to defend their nation’s citizens, its freedom, its national sovereignty, and its very existence.
Let us understand, as Lincoln surely would have understood, that there is unique tragedy and bitter irony in the failure of students at Cooper Union to recognize their own history, in their failure to appreciate these timeless moral distinctions, and in their choice to take up the cause of highwaymen, murderers, and terrorists.
In these dark times, let us take to heart God’s luminous opening covenantal promise to Abraham and to the nation, faith, and people he would found: “I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you.”
May angels — may “the better angels of our nature” — stretch out their hands and keep us and our homes and our people and our loved ones safe.
May we further take to heart the final and most celebrated words of Abraham Lincoln’s address at Cooper Union:
“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
Lest history repeat itself.
Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.