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The recent attacks and counterattacks are the latest manifestation of wars for land and sovereignty in the Middle East. For centuries, cycles of cultural and territorial strife have fed on a history of land claims, mistrust among neighboring peoples and a lust for revenge.
In truth, the dominant spiritual traditions of that region share a common root in the lives of the biblical patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah. Their way was one of compassion and peace. Faith and family were at the center of their lives. If these two great figures were alive to witness what is happening today, they would wail with pain and tear their clothes in the traditional expressions of grief.
Abraham is a central figure in the sacred texts of the Middle East's three major religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In the story of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah are the progenitors of many of the Jewish and Christian leaders who follow through time. Nearly 2,000 years after Abraham and Sarah were wed, Jesus was raised by Mary and Joseph, who was himself a direct descendant of Abraham, 42 generations removed. More than 600 years after Christ was crucified, Mohammed wrote that he considered Abraham to be the most significant religious figure in the ancient history of Islam. Abraham appears in the Koran as a source of inspiration and shining example for living a life of faith. Our age possesses no monopoly over the passionate loyalties that peoples of the Middle East hold for their families, their homelands and their beliefs. Ancient faces of the same forces that we see today confronted the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Abraham's son Ishmael was not able to forgive his brother Isaac for an injustice in which he felt his brother was complicit and that robbed Ishmael of his inheritance. Their inability to reconcile was disastrous for them and their families.
Esau, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, was wronged by his brother, Jacob, the trickster, who robbed Esau of his birthright and his father's blessing and inheritance. Yet, 20 years later, Esau forgave Jacob and embraced him -- an example of the transforming power of reconciliation. One evening, Jacob crossed a river and encountered a powerful being he perceived as a threat to his family. After they wrestled through the night, Jacob realized he had struggled with the Almighty, who then gave him the name of Israel, "One who has been strong against God." Joseph, whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, went on to become a powerful vizier who is second in authority only to Pharaoh. Despite the anger Joseph felt toward his brothers for betraying him, Joseph discovered compassion in his heart at the moment he held their lives in his hands.
The histories of these three faiths converge in a way that is profound and elemental. There is a strong parallel between the miraculous birth of Abraham's son Isaac, and the coming of Christ. Yahweh asks Abraham to prove his faith by sacrificing his son, Isaac. When Yahweh spares young Isaac from the knife in Abraham's trembling hand, a lineage is saved that will eventually lead to the birth of Jesus's father, Joseph. The tears of anguish that were shed by Abraham watered the seeds of faith for all Jews and Christians to come. Abraham's and Sarah's lives, and those of their descendants, are the nexus of three great religions. Their example could be a source of common ground at a time when religious beliefs, geopolitics and economic injustice drive the world's regional and global conflicts. Christians, Muslims and Jews can look to the patriarchs and matriarchs as their shared history and build on their foundations that honor faith while teaching followers to walk a path of tolerance and of living justly with other peoples.
An enduring commitment must be made to help the leaders of Judaism, Islam and Christianity rediscover that they possess the power to unite, heal and transcend. Only when the fighting is seen for what it truly is -- a crisis of faith and a failure to embrace common spiritual roots -- will hostilities begin to subside and a peaceful coexistence emerge. Then forgiveness and healing can begin, and the tears of Abraham will not have been shed in vain. Michael J. Caduto is the author of Abraham's Bind: Bible Stories of Trickery, Folly, Mercy and Love, published by SkyLight Paths (http://www. skylightpaths.com). His Web site is http://www.p-e-a-c-e.net.