Noah was destined to be neither the father of the Jewish people nor the founder of our faith. Though the most righteous one in his corrupt generation, he failed to reach out and save human lives besides those of his family. Thus, the rabbis who were aware of Noah’s disturbing limitations in the terse, yet pregnant Biblical text, turned to instructive and illuminating Midrashic fancy. They suggested that Noah did warn the people while building the ark of survival to take heed and mend their ways, but to no avail. The flood itself was conceived of as an educational process to gradually and urgently awaken human repentance and transformation, with God’s desired goal of averting a colossal disaster.
Abraham was chosen to begin the chain of Jewish living, learning, laughing, and loving, for he proved to possess, unlike Noah, that healthy dose of surging chutzpah and compassion that challenges even, and particularly the Most High when necessary. This confrontational response for the sake of heaven and earth has allowed Jews to transcend boundaries, smashing every age’s idols of stifling and dehumanizing convention.
Abraham and Sarah were refugees and immigrants from Mesopotamia, the cradle of Western Civilization, today’s Iraq and Syria—so ironically and tellingly. They were restive rebels on a journey that would profoundly impact humanity, leaving behind an advanced culture, but one that could not satisfy their spiritual quest and creative aspiration. Imagine Abraham’s moral outrage and righteous indignation at the seven-year-old war in Syria and half a million dead citizens, the use of chemical weapons, the barbaric bombing of Aleppo and other sites, and the plight of millions of Syria’s people and refugees. What a painful reminder of World War II and the Holocaust. Surely Abraham would have commended Israel for saving many innocent Syrian lives, including recently those hundreds of the heroic White Helmets and their families.
The thundering divine call, charge, and command to Abraham, echoing still, Lech-Lecha, to venture forth from his familial and familiar environment—physically, spiritually, and psychologically—both pushed and permitted him to depart from the world he had inherited in order to usher in a new one of his own making, that he may indeed be rewarded with becoming a blessing for no less than the entire human family. Isaac was ultimately spared, along with his progeny on the altar of the then practiced pagan custom of child sacrifices, because his father dared embrace, in spite of his background and not without divine intervention, the precious gift of life.
The members of our first family of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael proved to be complex individuals with opposing agendas. Their very touching humanity reflects the revolutionary and courageous approach of our sacred Biblical literature to be faithful to reality. But the flawed humaneness of our heroes, as well as our own, becomes a noble opportunity and a caring invitation to discover the divine potential within them, and us, to grow, change, and mature.
God’s fulfilled offer was that all members of Abraham’s fractured family facing the threat of fratricide would be blessed, each in a distinct and unique way with restored dignity and hope, while tragically with lasting and troubling historical consequences. This conflicted foundational legacy remains our covenantal Jewish bond and awesome human challenge to turn violence into vision, hurt into healing, adversity into advantage, trial into triumph, and blemishes into blessings.
Rabbi Dr. Israel Zoberman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim.