Wells and World Cup stadiums
Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum
If there ever was a ‘Patriarch Cup’ of popularity among Abraham, Isaac, Jakob and Joseph, four most prominent male characters in the book of Genesis, Isaac would be bound to land in fourth place. Sounds controversial? Let’s consider it for a moment.
When we think about other patriarchs, we immediately remember stories of amazing or, at the very least, memorable things they did. Abraham (then Abram) followed God’s command and went for himself and all of us to establish monotheism. Later he showed hospitality to angels (and perhaps the Eternal godself) in Mamre and famously bargained with God to spare Sodom. In turn, Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his birth right, was tricked into marrying Lea instead of Rachel and wrestled with a mysterious supernatural being till dawn. Last but certainly not least, Joseph had the power to interpret dreams, became the viceroy of Egypt and invited the nascent people (then more of a family) of Israel to settle in the land of Goshen.
All these are vivid stories of characters actively shaping the fate of their people by moving or taking risky decisions. In comparison, Isaac’s life doesn’t seem to abound in turbulent moments. We first get to know him as an adult in the famously chilling story of Akedat Itzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh HaShanah. However, the theological and narrative focus of this story is put on Abraham rather than Isaac, the latter is, sadly, its object rather than a subject. Some of you might also remember that, just like his father Abraham had to hide Sarah’s identity, Isaac once had to pretend that his wife Rebecca was his sister to spare her romantic pursuits of King Abimelech of Gerar. Notwithstanding these two episodes, Isaac’s life was relatively uneventful. So what did he do? How did he merit the honour of being one of our three patriarchs when charismatic Joseph missed out on this coveted title?
This eek’s Torah portion, Toldot, fills us in on Isaac’s seemingly mundane life. Even though he doesn’t travel like his father Abraham, son Jacob and grandson Joseph, Isaac’s plate is always full. He busies himself sowing in the Land of Canaan and digging numerous wells to make it more habitable. Repeatedly, Isaac encounters opposition from other inhabitants of the land, who block the wells that he has dug. This doesn’t make him waiver in his resolve to improve living conditions for all who dwell in the land. When conflicts arise, Isaac simply moves away to a new location in Canaan and digs another well.
Ultimately, even his opponents recognise the beneficial impact that Isaac’s work has had in Canaan. King Abimelech of Gerar comes to the latest well Isaac has built. There, two leaders swear an oath to each other. From now on, there should be no conflict between them, they shall be brothers united in a common task of making the Land of Canaan a better place. Isaac’s commitment to honest hard work for the benefit of all pays off; it ushers in a short but blessed period of prosperity, peace and brotherhood. The memory of the oath he and Abimelech swore is preserved in the name of the place where their pact was made: Beer Sheva, the ‘Well of the Oath’, now the largest city in the South of Israel and the capital of the Negev.
Hard work, brotherhood, peace. These values embodied by Isaac are supposed to be the ethical underpinnings of any international sporting event, including the football World Cup. Unfortunately, this year’s World Cup in Qatar goes against all the lofty ideals it is supposed to promote. Unlike Isaac’s wells, which were built by the sweat of his brow, Qatari stadiums and other World Cup infrastructure were built by economic migrants in conditions akin to slavery. It is estimated that up to 15,000 migrant workers died working on infrastructure projected initiated in Qatar since the granting of the Cup by FIFA in 2010.
Qatar’s blood-stained human rights record extends beyond the treatment of economic migrants. LGBTQ+ individuals, be it native Qataris or economic migrants, can be punished with imprisonment of up to seven years for living out their identity. For Muslims, the punishment is death penalty. As a result, Qatari LGBTQ+ residents live in hiding and in fear, not in peace that Isaac tried to bring to all he encountered.
If you still decide to watch the World Cup, be mindful of the suffering of economic migrants that went into construction of its infrastructure. Be mindful of the mental anguish of LGBTQ+ individuals that was sacrificed on the altar of Qatar’s and FIFA’s PR. Most disappointingly, the World Cup in Qatar testifies to the failure of the international sporting community to uphold and promote values that they purport to represent.
Luckily, we can promote these very values by emulating Isaac’s behaviour, by channelling his strengths. Here are examples of some of the things we can do.
For instance, we can say Aleinu in solidarity with Qatari LGBTQ+ community.
We can praise footballers who make public statements addressing homophobia and transphobia in Qatar.
Moreover, we can raise awareness of Qatari ruthless exploitation of economic migrants by sharing the stories of the victims of the Cup among them (See https://blankspot.se/part-1-families-whose-dreams-were…/). We can say a Kaddish in their memory before each kick-off.
To put it simply, we can respond to the Cup the way Isaac would.
If we do so, we shall earn the merit of calling ourselves Isaac’s descendants not just in spiritual but also ethical sense.