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Abraham Tested By And Tests Faithfully His God – OpEd

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Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year of 5783 begins this year on the evening of September 25 and ends before sunset on September 26 for Reform Jews; and on September 27 for Conservative and Orthodox Jews. Rosh HaShanah ushers in a ten day period of seeking self-improvement by doing a self-judgement review of our deeds in the past year; and then making specific commitments to make the new year better than last year.

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All humans face various tests in our lifetime, as the Qur’an states: “We shall certainly test you with fear and hunger, and loss of property, lives, and crops. But [Prophets], give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157) 

To this very day the narrative of Issac’s binding is read annually in synagogues throughout the world on the Jewish New Year of Rosh Ha-Shanah; and the sacrificial offering of Ishmael is commemorated annually throughout the world on the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. 

According to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135-1205), a great legal scholar of Jewish Law, as well as the personal physician of Sultan Saladin, Prophet Abraham shared his ten trials equally with Sarah or Isaac on one hand; as well as with Hagar or Ishmael on the other hand.

Prophet Abraham was the first person to be called a “Hebrew” in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 14:13). Hebrew probably comes from the verb to go over a boundary, like the Euphrates or Jordan river, i.e. to be a migrant. Ten generations later the Philistines in Canaan used the term “Hebrews” to refer to the 12 tribes of Israel: “The Philistine commanders asked, “What about these Hebrews?” (1 Samuel 29:3); and Prophet Jonah identified himself to non-Jewish sailers as “a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9). 

The Qur’an states in Surah 3:67: “He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyan, “a Jew”, nor a Nasraaniyyan, “a Christian”, but rather a Haniifan.” a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (Islam) to the one imageless God who created all space and time; who made Prophet Abraham’s descendants into a great multitude of monotheists called the People of Israel-Banu Israel.

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The Prophet Isaiah said: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he [Abraham] was only one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Isaiah 51:1-2) a

And the Qur’an states: “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure faith.” (3:95) “Indeed, We chose him (Abraham) as one pure and most distinguished in the world, and he is surely among the righteous in the Hereafter”. (Qur’an 2:130)

Prophet Isaiah also said: But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, are the offspring of Abraham, my friend;” (Isaiah 41:8) So the biological offspring of Prophet Abraham through Prophets Isaac and Jacob/Israel (the Banu Israel) became the first ongoing monotheistic community when God rescued them from Egyptian oppression; and made an ongoing covenant with them at Mount Sinai. Prophet Abraham was not born a Jew, but his descendants from his grandson Jacob/Israel became the Banu Israel—Jewish People.

For1200+ years after Prophet Moses, the Banu Israel was the only ongoing monotheistic community in the world. Unlike the other monotheistic communities that rose and fell during those centuries; most, but not all, of Banu Israel remained loyal to the covenant God made with them at Mount Sinai.

Yet Abraham, the greatest example of trust in God, was also capable of testing God’s mercy and justice by pleading for the polytheistic sinners of Sodom; as is revealed in chapter 18 of Genesis: 

18:16-19 “When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely (must) become a great and powerful (spiritually influential) nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children (the Children of Israel) and his household after him (the non-Jews who became Christians and the Arab children of Prophet Ishmael who became Muslims) to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he promised him.”

18:20-22 “Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.”

18:23-25 “Then Abraham approached him (God) and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare[c] the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then Abraham said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, He left, and Abraham returned home.

Prophet Abraham’s ability to fully accept God’s will, while at the same time speaking out honestly about how we humans should understand God’s ways, is why the Prophet Isaiah said: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he [Abraham] was only one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Isaiah 51:1-2) 

And the Qur’an adds: “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure faith.” (3:95)

This ability to question the God you trust, with honesty and loyalty, is what makes Prophet Abraham so great that he is called God’s friend in all three Abrahamic religions’ Sacred Scriptures: “whom God chose to be His friend” (Arabic Qur’an 4:125, Hebrew Bible Prophet Isaiah 41:8, and Greek New Testament Book of James [a brother of Jesus] 2:23).

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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