Today was not just the eve of the Jewish New Year, but the dawn of a new era for the entire Middle East.
After donning my tallit this morning, I felt like I could not remove it. I decided that today would be a day of prayer for me, and a fast day from food until after the signing of the Abraham Accord. As a reminder to myself, I wore my tallit the entire morning in Washington, D.C. I am carrying my shofar with me as well.
Why a day of prayer?
Over the past decades, the tent of Ishmael and the tent of Isaac have been pitched. The tent of Abraham, however, has fallen. This accord is not simply a transaction, a deal or a compromise. It is the pitching of the open tent of Abraham, with many countries raising the poles in unison.
The significance of this accord is not to be found in some “room where it happened,” but in the doors it will open. The political process is nothing more than one manifestation of the unfolding of a spiritual process much larger than any one person. The drama today is not to be found on the table where leaders will sign a piece of paper, but in the millions watching around the world who will feel the exuberance of a family reunion.
To be sure, many will be skeptical of this agreement. Some might say that this agreement is only about fighting a shared enemy, or creating financial benefit. The truth is that this agreement is really about forging a shared future and kickstarting a cultural renaissance. The only mistake that would enable the skeptics would be seeing this accord as a contract, not a covenant.
Political analysts will draw up the balance sheets of mutual compromises, of gains and losses. Economists will assess how this shifts the regional economies in energy, banking or tourism. If we do not don our spiritual lenses, we will lose the “Abraham” in the “Abraham Accord.”
I came to the UAE for the first time in January 2010, possibly the first public visit of any rabbi in centuries. We landed in the morning, and the time for my morning prayer was due. I turned into one of the Abu Dhabi airport lounges, and donned my tefillin and tallit. All of a sudden, I heard someone say in Hebrew, “Baruch Haba,” welcome.
A passing flight attendant, who grew up in Morocco next to a Jewish family, had remembered all of the appropriate greetings and recognized the paraphernalia. “It’s a little noisy here for prayer,” she said. “There is a better place over there,” she added, as she guided me to a different part of the lounge.
When we see each other in prayer, we can guide each other to better places. There’s a better place over there.
Almost one decade later I met Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh, permanent representative of UAE to the United Nations. She invited me to speak at an event at the UN headquarters in New York where ambassadors from over 50 Muslim or Muslim-majority countries were in attendance.
Recently appointed as chief rabbi, I shared the story of survival of my wife’s family under the protection of a Muslim doctor in Berlin during the Holocaust. Lana described the legacy of the Nusseibeh clan, Muslim guardians of the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The different strands of family tradition of mutual respect and tolerance should be separate no longer. We must re-weave the line of Abraham.
Tonight, I will fly from the U.S. to the UAE with the first American Jewish delegation after the signing. As representatives from the Jewish Federations of North America, they are not simply coming to the UAE to meet officials. They are coming to adorn the newly pitched tent of Abraham.
This day for me is a day of prayer, a day in which prayers shall be heard, seen, raised up and answered. It is an opening of the door to the better place. JN
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna is the executive director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University and the chief rabbi of the United Arab Emirates.