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Abraham’s actions influence us

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By Judi Siegal

He is held in high regard by followers of three world religions, and his thoughts and actions continue to influence us today. Though he was born 3,500 years ago, in an entirely different world than we experience today, nevertheless, the events and conflicts in his life have contributed to the ongoing pathos that constitutes the whole stream of human existence.

Abraham, the scion of the Jewish people and first patriarch, was born in Ur of the Chaldeans in ancient Babylonia. Much of what we know about him comes to us from the writings in the Hebrew bible, specifically the book of Genesis. We know his father’s name was Terah after reading the whole list of “begats” in Genesis 11. There is no mention of his childhood or life as a youth, and this is probably because there were no important events or revelations at this time.

The rabbis were puzzled how all of a sudden, Abraham starts having visions of one God. A famous midrash or story-legend has Abraham’s father a maker of idols for worship. One day, the young Abraham accidentally smashes one of his father’s idols while being left alone in his father’s shop. Fearful of punishment for the deed, he takes a large stick he found in his father’s shop and puts it in the hand of the biggest idol. When his father returned and saw the smashed idol, Abraham explains that it was the biggest image, the one with the stick that did the deed. Of course Terah knows that this cannot be since mere statues of clay cannot do such things. It is then that Abraham says to his father: “If these idols cannot do anything, why do you worship them?”

How it came about that a nomadic tribal sheik comes up with the idea of one God is certainly food for thought. I like what one of my students, a kindergartener, once told me when I asked this of the class. Very simply he said: “He thinked it.” While the little midrash about the idols is nice, I like my student’s answer because I believe it to be closer to the truth. Throughout his life, Abraham would be doing a lot of thinking, rationalizing and contemplating.

The Bible portrays Abraham as a man of hospitality, leadership and faith. He makes peace with warring kings, invites strangers into his open tent (as in the angels who warn him of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction) and is fair in his dealings with others, as in the purchase of the cave of Machpealah for his wifes Sarah’s burial and in the division of grazing lands for the herds of his nephew, Lot.

Of all the things that happen and all the visions or spiritual encounters that Abraham has, there are two events, in my opinion that stand out: his arguing with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Binding of Isaac.

In the story of Sodom and Gemorrah, God decides to destroy them for their wickedness. The Almighty “consults” with Abraham, his “friend” as to what will happen. Abraham feels destroying the cities is wrong because the innocent would die with the wicked. He argues that the Judge of all the World should not do such a thing if only 50 righteous people could be found. He eventually backs down to pleading for only 10 people but when not even ten righteous people can be found, the cities are destroyed. Arguing with God sure takes chutzpah – but that is what Jews have done for ages, using their free will to try to find meanings for all the troubles of life. It’s a great moment in the Hebrew Bible.

The Akedah or Binding of Isaac, in the Jewish tradition, is a troubling story. To test Abraham’s faith and worthiness to be a leader, he is asked to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah. He is prepared to do so until an angel stops him with the admonition that God does not want human sacrifice as the pagans did, especially with children in ancient times. What the Bible doesn’t tell us is Sarah’s side of the story; I can hear it all now: “Abie, you are not taking my son up some godforsaken mountain! Enough already with the God business. Find yourself something else to do. Take up golf or tennis!” Humor aside, it does give us something to think about.

Through Abraham, as the Bible relates, came blessings to his descendents. May we who follow Abraham whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim share and rejoice in our common ancestor and may this put us on a path to peace.

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil, and they enjoy RVing together.