Sunday, May 30, 2010


Jewish History: Avraham to Yehoshua

For many people growing up in school, history was not one of the most popular subjects Whilst math and english at least provided some benefit in our daily lives, discussing events that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago did not seem very relevant or helpful. However, Judaism views the study of history as something that can and should apply greatly to our every day lives. The past teaches us vital lessons which pertain to the present - we can gain great insights from the experiences of yesteryear, learning both from people’s positive actions and their mistakes.

Moreover, there is an additional layer to Judaism’s approach to history. The great early commentator, Nachmanides teaches a unique concept[1]; the events that happened in the lives of our forefathers will repeat themselves in the lives of their descendants. Consequently, there are patterns that repeat themselves throughout history, and understanding these patterns will provide us with great insight into understanding the times that we live in and can even help us predict the effects our actions will have in the future.[2].

The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham. He was born into a world where the vast majority of people worshipped many gods, such as the sun, moon and stars. Abraham was born into a particularly enthusiastic family of idol-worshippers - his father actually owned a store selling them! In this background, Abraham embarked on a rare journey - a quest for the truth as to who in fact created and sustains the world. He refused to accept the immense social pressure to blindly follow the conventional gods. Rather, through an intense process of intellectual and philosophical enquiry he came to the realization that no finite beings could have created the whole world. This brought him to the revolutionary realization that there was an Infinite being (known as ‘G-d’ or ‘Hashem‘) that could not be seen or touched, and yet offered the only logical explanation behind existence.

It is true that there were a few isolated individuals before Abraham who also discovered Hashem, such as Shem, the son of Noach. However, Abraham took a further step that set him apart from everyone else. He embarked on a mass publicity campaign to teach the world about the Infinite G-d that he had discovered. This set him apart as the first Jew - for the role of the Jewish people is not merely to follow G-d but to spread His teachings to the whole world. Abraham met with considerable success through his efforts, but unfortunately not everyone appreciated his novel message. The most powerful man in the world at that time, King Nimrod, was a staunch idol worshipper and took great exception to Abraham’s dangerous activities. He had him thrown into a fiery furnace but to everyone’s shock, Hashem caused a miracle to occur and Avraham emerged unscathed.

After many years of spreading knowledge of the Infinite, G-d himself spoke to Abraham, instructing him to leave his comfortable surroundings and go to the Holy Land of Israel. This journey was fraught with difficulty. As soon as he arrived there a sever famine struck, forcing him to feel to the depraved land of Egypt, where his beautiful wife, Sarah, was taken by Pharaoh. Sarah’s great righteousness earned her Divine protection from Pharaoh and he was struck by a plague, an ominous preview of the Ten Plagues that would strike Egypt many years later. A fearful Pharaoh released her and sent Abraham and his contingent back to Israel with great wealth. The troubles did not stop there, however, when the first World War began and Avraham’s nephew, Lot, was kidnapped. Abraham set off with a small group and miraculously overcame his mighty enemies and freed Lot.

Yet after all this success, Abraham was still lacking a child, and consequently the whole future of his mission to spread the word of G-d was in severe jeopardy. In the momentous ‘Bris Bein HaBesarim’ (Covenant of the two parts) G-d promised Abraham that he would indeed merit to have a child who would continue in his path and a great nation would emerge who would undergo great hardships but would ultimately conquer the land of Canaan.

Abraham’s wife, Sarah, selflessly encouraged Avraham to marry a second wife, her maidservant, Hagar so that he could have a child[3]. Immediately, Hagar gave birth to Yishmael, the man who would emerge as the ancestor of the Moslem people. Eventually, Abraham and Sarah did merit to have a son, Isaac, who proved to be a great success in continuing his father’s teachings. Yishmael did not take too kindly to his younger half-brother and Sarah feared that Yitzchak’s life was at risk. Accordingly she persuaded Abraham to send Yishmael away where he began the dynasty that would culminate with the birth of Islam.

This difficult episode was followed by the most demanding challenge of Abraham’s life - the Binding of Isaac (Akeida). G-d instructed Abraham to offer up his only son as a sacrifice. G-d never intended for Abraham to actually follow through with this, rather He was testing Avraham’s willingness to follow His commands, even if they did not make sense. Abraham succeeded, imbuing in his descendants the ability to accept Divine Judgment even at the risk of life. Indeed, countless Jews were willing to give up their lives for their beliefs and they derived the strength to do this through Abraham’s actions in the Akeida.
[1] Parshas Lech Lecha, 12:6
[2] There are many examples where leading Rabbis accurately predicted the future based on their understanding of history. For example, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (known as the Ohr Sameach) wrote that history testifies that whenever Jews try to assimilate the result is a great outpouring of anti-Semitism. Accordingly, he observed that Berlin, the center of Jewish assimilation would mark the beginning of a new wave of anti-Semitism. He died in 1926, long before Hitler ascended to power (Meshech Chachma, Parshas Bechukosai, Ch.26, v.44).
[3] Abarbanel, Parshas Lech Lecha, 16:2.

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