Abraham is the founding father of Judaism. I occasionally encounter heated discussions of whether Abraham was the first Jew. The argument would play out similarly if the subject matter were different. Was the father of Christianity a Christian although Christianity didn’t yet exist as a religion? Was Moses Mendelssohn a Reform Jew although it was only his followers who established the reformation?
Technically, Judaism was established as a religion only later, at Mt. Sinai. Abraham had founded a legacy of belief and obedience to the One God in heaven. His family carried that legacy for a few generations before being established as a nation in Egypt. It was that nation, descended from Abraham, which was singled out to live by the commandments of the Torah. It is not wrong, therefore, to contend that Abraham was the first Jew, since he planted the seed and formed the roots of this mystical tree, although he was technically not a Jew..
Abraham was a unique individual. If Abraham lived today we would either see him as crazy or a spiritual guru. In reality he was a mentch of the highest order. He was a man of deep integrity and conviction who marched to the beat of the Lord’s drum, without deviating or taking his own interests into account. His kindness was altruistic; there was no self gain or glory in Abraham’s mind. He performed his tasks with simplicity and humility, never demanding or complaining about his fate.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks paints a striking contrast between Abraham and his predecessors. For the first 2000 years of the world’s existence as we know it there was a failing in humanity, a failing particularly in the realm of responsibility. Among all the characters who appear in the Torah’s narrative, those who played the most significant roles in the development of civilization, there was none who put God’s priorities before their own until Abraham.
When Abraham was but a young man, living in a society plagued by hubris and self promotion, an attempt was made to establish the human legacy as the dominant power of the universe. The Tower of Babel was, at its core, a glorification of human achievement and importance. Abraham, in his final and greatest test, was willing to give up all that gave him immortality and legacy if that was the will of God. Abraham was willing to give up his one son from his life partner Sarah, the long awaited son of his old age, the son through whom all of his life’s work would be perpetuated. All of this was dismissed in a moment in submission to God’s will. Unlike his society Abraham lived an existence of total devotion to God.
Ten generations earlier the star character was Noah. Noah stood out in his generation as a righteous man, one who toed God’s line despite living in a society where corruption was rampant and everyone pursued self gratification. While Noah is glorified for holding the fort in that trying time, he failed to make an impression on his society. His family alone was saved in the ark and he did not succeed in influencing others to be better. He lived and the rest of the world was destroyed. Abraham, in contrast, took off his gloves in a valiant attempt to save the doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The inhabitants of Sodom were wicked, deserving of punishment. They were neither friends nor relatives of Abraham. Nevertheless Abraham spared no effort in pleading their case to save them as fellow human beings. Abraham accepted a sense of responsibility which transcended and went beyond his immediate circle.
Earlier yet, the tragic story of Cain and Abel played out. In a fit of jealousy Cain killed his brother Abel. When God confronted him Cain responded by coining the phrase – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain tried to dodge responsibility not merely for another person but for his own flesh and blood relation. Abraham risked his life to rescue his nephew Lot when he was captured following the defeat of the the five City-States by the more powerful alliance of the four. When the wrath of God came to deal with the wicked people of Sodom Abraham maximized his efforts of diplomacy and negotiation. When his brother’s son was in danger, however, he mobilized instantly as the ultimate keeper of his brother.
Finally, the contrast can be drawn in the very first failing of humanity. Adam and Eve failed to observe the one commandment God had given them. They couldn’t accept that something was off limit to them. They could not deal with someone else making rules. They ate the forbidden fruit and were subsequently banished from the Garden of Eden. They were forced into an exile of a sort as a result of their weakness. Abraham, on the other hand, voluntarily went into exile at the request of the Lord. Lech Lecha, ‘Go forth,’ God told him. ‘Leave your familiar surroundings, the place of your birth and upbringing. Go to the place where I will show you.’ Rather than being forced, Abraham exercised his free will in choosing to obey, choosing to follow the rules imposed by His Creator.
Whether Abraham is the first Jew or not is immaterial. Abraham is our great grandfather and he possessed these incredible qualities which is our legacy and heritage. He was a person who displayed compassion, took initiative and was altruistic in his motives. This is the seed of our great tradition and it is our pride and responsibility to be descendents of this great one.