Last week, I came across a list of the most influential men who ever lived….names and personalities many of us would easily recognize. Yet, one name was surprisingly missing. Perhaps it is because he never ruled an empire or commanded an army. He wasn’t known to engage in spectacular acts of heroism on the battlefield, nor lead a multitude of followers. In fact, he had no disciples other than his own child. Yet today, ironically, more than half of the 6 billion people on earth identify themselves as his heirs.
His name: Abraham – held up as the patriarch of the three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He fits no conventional stereotype. Unlike Noah, he is NOT described as unique in his generation. In fact, we don’t have a lot to go on in terms of his early life. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, when God calls on Abraham, then Abram to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, we have no idea why he was even singled out.
Yet never was a promise more richly fulfilled than in the actualization of the words God uttered to him when God changed his name from Abram to Abraham: “…In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Today, there are 56 Islamic and 80 Christian countries, and one Jewish state. Truly Abraham became the father of many nations. But who and what was Abraham and why was he chosen for this exemplary role? Two thoughts come to mind:
- As children, we learn that when left alone with his father’s idols, Abram breaks them, promoting, above all else, his belief in one God. He was the young man who went against the grain and the norms around him to affirm his covenant, his ultimate and enduring belief.
- The second is found in Midrash, rabbinic folklore that Abraham is travelling on a journey when he sees a palace in flames. The owner calls out to him, as God called to Abraham (prior), asking him to help fight the fire. Here we see Abraham, the fighter against injustice, the man who sees the beauty of the natural universe being disfigured by the sufferings inflicted by man.
Perhaps it is these [and other] elements of Abraham that remind us of what it is to be a Jew TODAY: for us to challenge the idols of our age; to wander spiritually and intellectually seek in order to evolve and uncover new horizons. And, like Abraham, to continue to vision our identity with the awesome task of pursuing tzedek (justice)….to pray with our feet by “walking the talk” and doing our part to right the wrongs we unearth.
Each and every day in our tradition, we have opportunities to take what is natural and sanctify it; what is physical and invest it with greater [and Divine] purpose. As God calls upon Abraham, avinu, our father, to Lech – to go forth, let him be a reminder for all of us to sanctify the everyday as we are called to do and to be pioneers of Justice and Tikkun O’lam.