Who is Avram, or Avraham?
By: Rav Elisha Salas – [Rav Salas was an emissary for Shavei Israel, serving as community rabbi in Portugal, Spain and Central America between the years of 2003-2019]
Avraham is a character in the Bible. His life and work are narrated in the book of Genesis, whose writing is traditionally attributed to Moses. According to the sacred texts, he is the first of the three patriarchs of Judaism, and he leaves the land of his parents to settle in the Promised Land by divine command.
Abraham is the son of Terah, who is the tenth-generation descendant of Noah, born in Ur of the Chaldees (Sumeria, today Iraq). He is the father of many children, among which the most notable are Ishmael and Isaac. Avraham is considered, according to biblical tradition, the “founder” of Judaism through his grandson Jacob (son of Isaac), of whom he will have 12 great-grandchildren who will establish the twelve tribes of Israel. He died in Hebron, Israel, aged 175.
He is a contemporary of Noah and his family, having special contact with Shem, son of Noah, with whom he shares studies and from whom he receives the knowledge of what the flood was. He lives in the time of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel, where he will be confronted and condemned for his revolutionary ideas, which were in confrontation with the ideologies of his time. Despite being the only one, in a polytheistic society, to affirm the existence of only one G-d, Creator of all worlds and who cares and takes care of the human being, Abraham decides to continue with his search for this unknown G-d that caused the great flood and renewed all Creation.
His heroic acts will lead him to feel identified with this faith that is born from the depths of his heart, as a result of his constant studies and meditations in the analysis of his own being, of nature and of the universe.
This prepared him to elevate his soul to spiritual levels, which will ultimately lead him to hear the voice of G-d, who tells him to gaze at the stars in the vastness of space, making him the basis of the three great religions that sustain humanity: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
To speak or comment about Abraham is to remember and relive the history of the human being, in its constant inner questions about the reason for our existence, of the reasoning before human action in the face of all the events that we must face in our daily life, in the struggle for survival, in the daily social companionship that we deeply need. We are sociable beings by nature, and we seek our well-being and that of our own kin, our family group, our society. In this search, questions arise about why we were born, where did we come from, where are we going… Is there something superior to us? Does our life have a purpose? Are we the cause of a sublime goal? Life is so extraordinarily creative and wonderful; it starts with birth and ends with death… and then what? Are we just living energy, not knowing where from or how, and then we leave this life just when we begin to understand and love it? We constantly feel the need to find answers to all the questions that arise from the depths of our being and for which the answers we give them often satisfy us only for a while, and then the questions bloom again, perhaps not with the same words, not for the same reasons, but the feeling of dissatisfaction is the same, which leads us to continue in our infinite search.
Abraham is a person who does not silence such questions. He is not satisfied with the answers he receives from his contemporaries, from his family, from his friends, perhaps from his leaders, striving to find answers to the questions of his heart.
The biblical texts as well as the different midrashim or parables of our sages help us to understand the different aspects of the life of this great man who was Avraham Avinu:
In the biblical texts:
Avraham, prophet of G-d:
Bereshit 15:5 And He brought him forth abroad, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them’; and He said unto him: ‘So shall thy seed be.’
Avraham and his sense of justice:
Bereshit, 18:23: And Abraham drew near, and said: ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
Avraham, unlimited faith:
Bereshit, 22:11: And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’
Avraham, source of blessing to the nations:
Bereshit, 22:18: and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.’
Through a Midrash
Abraham’s father Terah was an idol maker. One day he had to leave the store and left Abraham in charge. A man who wanted to buy one of the idols on display came into the store.
“How old are you, sir?” asked Abraham.
“Fifty,” replied the customer.
“Woe to such a man, who is fifty years old, and is willing to worship an idol that was born only yesterday!”
A little later a lady came, bringing an offering for the idols. She gave it to Abraham, asking him to offer it to the idols on her behalf, and left. Then, after the lady left, Abraham took a stick, destroyed all the idols except the biggest one, and put the stick in the hand of this biggest idol.
When his father came back and saw all the idols in pieces, naturally he got angry:
“What happened here?? Didn’t I tell you to take care of the store?? And now I come back and find everything broken?”
“I am sorry, father. I’ll tell you what happened: a lady came to deliver an offering to the gods. The gods all started arguing with each other, as they all wanted to eat the offering first, so the biggest one took a stick and broke the rest of them all!”
“Are you making fun of me?!?” exclaimed the father, infuriated. “Do idols have life or intelligence?!?”
“Ah, if only your ears could hear the words of your mouth, father!”
To speak of Abraham is to magically unite ourselves to the history of the human being, of its reconnection to spirituality, of the search for a meaning for life, with all that our existence means. It is accepting, from the bottom of our hearts, that there are reasons why we were born and why are in this world, that there are altruistic values that we must promote in our lives and that there is a wonderful Being, who formed us, who created us, who cares about each one of us, who is the Great Director of the existence of all created worlds and who has a deep love for His main work of Creation, which is the human being.
Rav Elisha Salas currently lives in Ashkelon, Israel, working as a kashrut supervisor in Israel and Portugal.