Abraham was born circa 1800 BCE in the ancient city of Ur. Although Abraham can be considered the founder of Judaism, his teachings also reverberate through the philosophies of both Christianity and Islam.
Abraham's father was a polytheistic idol worshipper and a merchant of idols. From a young age, Abraham discarded his father's belief of many gods. Abraham began to develop monotheistic beliefs and he shared his thoughts with others. Once, while left alone to take care of his father's store, Abraham took a hammer and smashed all but one idol.
Abraham's father returned to a store littered with shattered idols and one intact idol holding a hammer. When asked what had happened, Abraham said that the idols had gotten into a fight, and that the idol with the hammer had smashed all the other ones. His father said, "Don't be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can't do anything." Abraham then asked, "Then why do you worship them?"
One day God called to him, telling him to leave his home and family. In return, Abraham would become the patriarch of a great nation and be blessed. So he left his home and family and wandered for many years in what is now Israel.
Abraham had a wife named Sarah, but they were childless. Sarah was past childbearing age so she asked a maidservant, Hagar, to carry Abraham's child. Hagar gave birth to a boy named Ishmael who, according to tradition, is the father of the Arabs.
When Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90, God told them that they would have a child together. Sarah carried and delivered Isaac. Abraham was later subject to a test from God in which he was asked to sacrifice his son. God spared Isaac's life by providing Abraham with a sacrificial lamb. Isaac became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
If I had to choose my favorite person in the Bible it would be Abraham. The story of the life of Abraham is a fascinating one, filled with challenges, travels and great drama, yet the sages look back at his life and bring up two outstanding aspects of Abraham's nature: his utter conviction, in a world of pagan idolatry, that there was only one true God; the second aspect the sages exclusively refer to when speaking of Abraham was his kindness. I'd like to briefly address both of these points.
In his latter years, Abraham's house was known to the travelers of the trade routes as a "safe haven." His tent was always open to give rest and comfort to the weary. In exchange for the saying of grace, a sojourner would find good food, drink and shelter from the harsh desert. The Torah tells us that Abraham would interrupt even the Lord in the midst of a conversation to entertain travelers who came to his tent. Rather than be angry at Abraham, the Lord was said to have found this endearing--so much so that the Lord tolerated having his judgment questioned. For example, when it was made known that the City of Sodom was to be destroyed, Abraham pleaded on behalf of its populace, "Would you spare the city (of thousands) if there could be found fifty righteous people?" The Lord conceded. Abraham continued, "What if there could be found only forty?" Abraham bargained to save the city if only ten good men could be found living in it. This, unfortunately, was not to be the case, but you have to admire the tenacity of Abraham.
Although his kindness was legendary, it is the fact that Abraham found and knew the Lord which makes him the striking personality we are familiar with. He was born into a world that had all but forgotten the holy one. His father, in fact, was a seller of idols! Yet even in his youth, Abraham realized there was something wrong with his father's reasoning, his family, his neighborhood, and his world. Abraham carried this conviction from childhood throughout his life. His absolute belief in a creator that could neither be seen, touched or encompassed, seemed incomprehensible and alien to those who carried idols. Abraham was undaunted in his conviction. When the Lord finally spoke to him, telling him to leave his home, family, and fortune to go to an undisclosed destination, Abraham complied and, I suspect, joyfully.
This brings me to the point of this column. Abraham had the courage to be alone in the world, and to still follow his deep beliefs. If he had not had conviction, in spite of all his other merits, he would probably have been forgotten in the pages of history.
It seems all too obvious to say "be true to your convictions" -- almost pedestrian. We live in a world of compromise. Daily we draw lines and give a little here and there to make ourselves comfortable. Abraham would draw no such lines concerning his faith. Of course, the belief of Abraham was not anchored in a worldly system, but rather in his belief that the Lord overshadowed all creation.
Abraham and the Jewish journey
- MISHPACHA is Hebrew for family. This Web site has lessons on Judaism for families.
- The main purpose of this Web site is to impress upon the students the many things that these three religions have in common, as well as their differences, which should lead to greater understanding and respect for the beliefs of others.
- The mission of this organization is to build bridges between the people of the three Abrahamic relgions.