Who is the most influential person in human history? Arguments have been made for Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, and Buddha. Einstein may get a few votes, as might Marx and Freud. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Alexander the Great, and Genghis Khan will be on some voters’ short lists. But the fact is that the one person who probably should win the contest hands down, most likely won’t even be on the ballot. Who is this unsung hero of humanity? It’s none other than the Biblical patriarch, Abraham.
Who was this guy anyway and why won’t he qualify as a contender? The simple and obvious answer is that many people, including the likely judges of this contest, don’t think that he ever existed. They consider him to be nothing other than some semi-legendary figure out of the forgotten traditions of the ancient Hebrews that somehow made it into the stories that eventually become the Bible. Was he real? Hardly. Was he made up, like Frodo or Alice or the Cat in the Hat? Not exactly, but that doesn’t mean that he actually pitched his tent in the desert or walked and talked with God. So what are we supposed to do with some guy who maybe lived or maybe didn’t; who may have been a real ancestor of the Hebrews but just as likely was a creation of those Hebrews as they reminisced about their origins while sitting around the campfire as they traipsed through the Sinai desert? For one thing, we leave him off that list. At best, we can include him with an asterisk, like some steroid-using baseball player.
What do we really know about Abraham anyway? No grave has ever been found. No engraving on a wall or tablet has been unearthed in those archeological digs in the Israeli desert that make the news every once in a while. The fact is, among documents from Biblical times, his name only comes up in the Bible, which cannot be positively traced to earlier than about 2500 years ago. From the Bible we can glean that he (supposedly) lived close to 4,000 years ago, so the gap between the man and the recorded history is close to 1500 years - not exactly contemporary.
What makes Abraham in particular so famous and so influential? For starters, he has been credited through the influence of the Bible, as laying the foundation of the three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Though he is not as revered by Christians as he is by Jews and Moslems, they nevertheless look back to him as the man who saw through the veils of idolatry and enlightened his ancient contemporaries with the idea of one God. It is difficult to imagine a man who has had so powerful an influence over so many people. The only problem is nobody has found any concrete evidence that he ever lived.
The midrashim have a vast amount to say about Abraham. Virtually every single word recorded in the Torah dealing with him is analyzed to the utmost; every single action and event in his life is taken apart and reinterpreted, until the entire package becomes an almost prototype for the life of the godly person and the Torah Jew. The midrash follows him on his journey to Canaan and goes wild on the significance of his circumcision. Finally, many midrashim elaborate on the dramatic close call of sacrificing his son Isaac as an offering to God, an event that the midrashic rabbis see as the climax of a lifetime of dedication to following the will of God. With his death at the ripe old age of 175, we have a complete picture of the man who started off as Avram HaIvri (Abram the Hebrew) and ended up as Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham).
One particular midrash goes further than any of this. It deals with a verse way back in the beginning of creation (2:4) – ‘These are the generations of the heavens and the earth in their being created, on the day that Hashem God made the earth and the heavens.’ The word for ‘in their being created’ is b’hibaram, an unusual word with a highly unusual nuance – in traditional Torah scrolls the second letter is written smaller than the other letters. Such a nuance never goes unnoticed by the rabbis (this is an example of the interpretive method known as remez). One particular midrash (among many on this nuance) rereads this strangely written word b’hibaram as b’abraham (it involves switching the place of two Hebrew letters, the second and the fifth – trust us, it works) to derive the remarkable conclusion that the world was created in the merit of Abraham. It then explains that all the divine efforts that went into creating the vast expanse of the heavens and the myriad of creatures on the earth were made for the man who was chosen by God and taken out of his homeland and whose name was changed (from Avram to Avraham). Thought you’d heard them all?
I know what you’re thinking – what were the guys who came up with this thing smoking? Black holes in some distant galaxy created for some nomad who may have lived a few thousand years ago, pitched his tent in a few places in some corner of what is now the Middle East, cut off his foreskin for some cockamamie reason, and then deluded himself into almost killing his son? Every molecule, atom, quark, the structure of DNA, the colors of the rainbow, the mind, the soul – all for the merit of this one guy? This is just too much. So what could this midrash possibly have in mind?
It’s a little baffling that despite all the Abraham stories in the Bible, one does not get a clear idea as to what was so great about him from the text itself. Sure he left his homeland, but plenty of people probably did that then and plenty have done it since. He made covenants with God but plenty of people did that also. There really isn’t any evidence in the text about his supposed ‘discovery of God’, we simply read about him receiving prophetic messages and commandments and abiding by them. Circumcision probably wasn’t all that easy, but is it worth creating a universe for? Attempting to sacrifice his son seems downright barbaric to the modern mind, and to the ancient mind was probably looked at as rather extreme if not foolish. So what’s so great about him anyway?
To the rabbis of the midrash, however, every little movement he made had cosmic significance. He sought out an answer to the greatest mystery of them all – how and why are we all here. His answer was that the one God, the Creator, brought us and everything else into being so that we could understand God and spend our lives walking in God’s ways. He dedicated his life to helping others and showing them the proper path, despite countless obstacles and opposition. He showed his unlimited devotion to God’s will through his willingness to circumcise himself and to sacrifice the life of his spiritual and lineal heir.
But there is something else. Abraham did all this on his own. Sure he had God prompting him all the way, but that, in a sense, is the epitome of doing it on his own. God was not shooting lightening bolts at Abraham to get him to leave his homeland. He wasn’t threatening him with childlessness if he refused to circumcise himself. The very command of bringing his son as an offering would have been interpreted by anyone other than Abraham as some bizarre hallucination - a trick of the Satan, or a sign of psychosis. The Torah doesn’t say that Abraham merely walked with God, an accolade that is reserved for a select few of the great personalities of the Bible. God commands Abraham to ‘walk before Me’ (Genesis 17:1). The bold quality of trailblazing, of going where no man has gone before, of searching out new pathways to discover truth and to find God - was the real greatness of Abraham.
Many since have followed in his footsteps. Many have learned to listen for the voice of God commanding them to leave their old ways. Many have learned to dedicate themselves heart and soul to a worthy cause or to a spiritual journey. Jews and Moslems follow his practice of circumcision. All monotheists follow his religious path, each religion in its own way. But unless they are willing to be trailblazers, to try to find a path where no such path exists or is evident, they are relegating themselves to being followers. Not that there is anything wrong with being a follower, it’s just that God would not have created the universe for such a person. The trailblazer alone is worthy of that lofty praise.
A trailblazer is not merely one who sees problems with the old system and helps to get rid of it. That may be a necessary step of trailblazing but it is not sufficient. The true trailblazer sees that as only a first step. It is in the establishment of the new path that the true worth of the trailblazer becomes revealed. Abraham may have smashed idols, but if he couldn’t create an alternative, perhaps it would have been better to let the idols remain as inert and powerless illusions that serve some purpose. Abraham understood the new way, and he made it happen. He shook the world and it has not stopped shaking.
Most of us don’t really have any great desire to be trailblazers. We’d rather leave that messy task to others. There’s always somebody out there who is crazy enough to risk the danger and the ridicule of going out on their own and trying to turn others on to some newfangled trend. But by letting others take this responsibility we may be shortchanging ourselves. Trailblazing, in addition to possibly helping others, is a golden opportunity for personal growth. There is no greater measuring rod, and no greater proving ground for one's own mettle, than attempting to find a new path to go down. It’s true, one may meet up with failure, but that is just part of the adventure. If one meets with success, there is no greater reward.
It is not easy to walk with God. It is even more difficult to walk before God. Walking with God usually entails following some religious path, though it may mean something else altogether. Walking before God is going out on your own, without any great assurance that you are necessarily on the correct course, facing unrelenting opposition, and just plowing on ahead because you somehow think that this is the way you have to go. You may have to look back over your spiritual shoulder and hope that God is following. This is a tall order for anyone, but sometimes we just have to take those leaps because otherwise we cannot face ourselves in the mirror. Abraham was one of the few who really walked before God. Throughout the bulk of our lives, we may need to walk with God, but we really do not need to walk before God. However, when those times of crises arise, when those moments of truth and destiny face us in the eye, we have to be ready to blaze our own trail like that ancient ancestor who blazed a trail and created a world.
Food for Thought
Of all the great figures from the past, none is so distant, so remote, so ancient, as Abraham. How is it possible that a semi-legendary nomad from 4,000 years ago can still speak to us with a message that is powerful and important?
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