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Abraham Today

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Would He Recognize His Children?

A short while ago I went into a Synagogue for the evening prayers. In middle of the service I noticed one congregant behaving rudely to another. I was about to say something, when a man standing next to me whispers: “These two guys have been fighting as long as I am here. Don’t get involved.”

“No big thing,” you may think. “People everywhere have their petty fights.” But I couldn’t just dismiss this away. A personal childhood experience would not allow me to. When I was around 6 years old, I vividly recall – in a type of frozen image, the type that results only from a childhood experience forever etched in our memories – a fistfight that took place in my local shul. I never will forget my fright and horror watching these two big guys punching it out right in middle of the prayer services. When I asked my father what was going on, he simply waved it away and said “tzvai idioten” (two idiots)…

Years later, I have heard far too many people telling me how similar distasteful experiences have turned them off from religion and religious institutions: Having witnessed profound inconsistencies between people’s outward appearance (as devout individuals) and their actual behavior; having seen how a person can be obsessively committed to certain rituals and simultaneously be utterly unrefined and callous; how certain religious individuals are judgmental and condescending, playing “holier than thou,” and in their own personal lives, beneath the surface, they can stoop to pettiness, greed and even… fistfights; how divisiveness and just plain primitive acrimony has permeated so many communities of faith; how children in religious homes are being hurt by selfish adults, no different than their counterparts in secular homes. All these radical discrepancies and contradictions have contributed to much of today’s cynicism and rejection of religious life.

Obviously, this must be qualified by two important facts: The first is that this by no means is a blanket stereotype of religious individuals, many of whom are gentle, sensitive souls, people who continuously work on refining themselves precisely due to their beliefs. Some of the most noble, cultivated and spiritual humans on earth are people of faith. The second point is that a system should never be judged by any one or group of individuals. Religion establishes a particular standard for human virtue and justice. No person on this planet can live up to the highest standard; the committed life is one that always aspires to reach upward, while knowing our shortcomings and that there are always greater horizons to conquer. The fact that a few individuals may be hypocrites and behave in embarrassing ways does not reflect on the system as a whole, only on the reality that the system does not preclude foolish people making bad choices and behaving inappropriately or immaturely. No different than, say, a scientist falsifying data reflects on all scientists and all of science.

Yet, those few (or a bit more) individuals who glaringly behave contrary to the religious standard are sure able to give all of religion a black eye – and one that endures.

So at disturbing times like this, when corrupt religion and the ugliness of human nature rears its head, I for one like to take a trip – a journey that takes us back over three millennia to the birth of religion.

What would the man who gave us monotheism and embraced a life of virtue, justice and kindness say about religion in our times? Would he even recognize it? How would Abraham react if he entered a modern-day Synagogue? Would he readily join a board of trustees of one of our religious institutions, or become part of its faculty? And how would he respond to a Synagogue brawl between his great great grandchildren?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. So please submit them (by commenting on this article below) and let us compare notes.

Here is my speculation as to Abraham’s attitude to religious life today:

Let’s begin with the brawl. If Abraham walked into a Synagogue and saw the fight that I witnessed, I have no doubt that he would cry. He would have the same reaction to all the other inconsistencies mentioned above.

But the bigger question is whether he would even walk into a 21st century Synagogue? Would he be comfortable there? And which exact Synagogue would he choose?

Abraham would be quite disturbed by any house of G-d that has been turned into a bureaucracy. I doubt that Abraham would be comfortable in any shul that did not welcome every individual equally, where every soul felt at home.

Perhaps that is why the Arizal and the Baal Shem Tov – as it was the custom of other sages and mystics – would recite certain (the Shabbat eve) prayers in the field… We read in this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 24:63), “Isaac went out to speak (pray) in the field.” Isaac must have learned that from someone before him – none other than his father, Abraham. [Commentaries reconcile this with the law stating that one should pray in a structure – see Tosafot Berochos 34b. Zohar Beshalach 60a. Mogen Avraham Orach Chaim 90:6]. Some prayer is perhaps most conducive in the field, amongst nature, with no distractions from man-made structures and institutions. Even the structures where prayers should generally be held require windows that allow us to see and reach beyond the structure, to heaven. Abraham would be looking for the windows…

The Baal Shem Tov once ran out of a relatively empty Synagogue, complaining that the place was too packed leaving him no room to pray. When his students wondered what he meant, the Baal Shem Tov explained: The Zohar says that love and awe are like the two wings of a bird that carry our soaring prayers to heaven. In this particular Synagogue the prayers were being recited without any feeling at all, leaving them all grounded, like trapped birds, unable to soar. The Synagogue was therefore so packed with these “dead” prayers, leaving no room for the Baal Shem Tov…

Abraham would be looking for the windows – for the soaring prayers and the airborne spirits.

Abraham was a pioneer of non-conformity. He defied his family and his entire society, rejecting their paganism and charting a new course that would change history forever (see The Greatest Journey Ever Taken). No doubt that Abraham, the father of individuality and non-conformity, would be quite shocked to see how the Divine path that he initiated – leaving behind all his comfort zones, and choosing for himself and his children a life of virtue and service – how religion has become so conformist today, often stifling the human spirit.

Abraham was a global thinker with a universal vision to lead people toward personal and collective redemption. He clearly would find it odd that some Jews today have become so parochial, and even divisive, focusing on their personal lives, and often forgetting that G-d gave us a universal blueprint to improve the larger world. And like musical notes in one grand composition, we need each other to realize our individual aspirations.

Abraham did not seclude himself in study, prayer and Divine devotion. He opened his home to all, he “created” (inspired) souls in Charan, he made it his life’s work to not only teach his children the path of righteousness and justice, but to inspire everyone he came in contact with. How, Abraham would surely wonder, did his confident and proactive attitude – as a driving force in human progress – become so defensive and tentative?

Abraham was a passionate, revolutionary soul who changed the world around him, instead of letting the world change him. What happened, Abraham would ask, that today so many people of faith lack passion and soul? Why are there so many mechanical people, who perform even mitzvos by rote? And why is it that religious people today are so affected by contemporary society (whether they know it or not) and the pursuit of money, that instead of them shaping the world, the world is shaping them? And where oh where are the revolutionaries?

But above all, Abraham would not retreat. He would not choose the easier path of protecting his “own skin” and give up on our generation. If Abraham prayed for the infidels of Sodom, he surely would do all he possibly could to help us free ourselves of our own lethargy.

Abraham would certainly find profound merit in us, his grandchildren. That despite all the persecutions and genocides, despite centuries of oppression, we, Abraham’s progeny are still standing. Albeit, perhaps weak at times, perhaps inconsistent, perhaps devoid of passion – but still trying.

But Abraham would not suffice with finding merit in our lives. He would engage us, challenge us, rouse and empower us – he would fire us up to cease acting like victims and take control of our lives and our destinies. He would imbue us with profound confidence (or better yet: ignite the confidence that lies dormant in our souls) to go out and change the environment in which we live.

Yes indeed, just imagine how Abraham would turn over our world! The thought alone can make you shudder.

Interesting to envision how a man who lived over 3700 years ago would react to our world and what he would do to improve our condition.

Then again, perhaps there is an Abraham here with us today. Perhaps that Abraham is inside of you and me…

Photo by Jakob Montrasio/Flickr.

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This is a *magnificent* article and there’s not much more to add…you’ve captured the real essence of the paradox we live in today’s “religious” world. I agree with a comment here from Esther regarding Chazzan – although it may sound superficial, I am Ashkenazi but go to Sephardic shull partially since I am Latin American and love emotions and an amazing chazzan (often found in Sephardic shull but also in a few Beit Chabad like Issaquah/Central Cascades) helps to warm our hearts and soul.

e.d.m.

Abraham is only loving kindness. Abraham would not be recognized in the same way as in his own time. In fact those who are too kind might be diagnosed with a psychological imbalance today. However, if Abraham walked into a Shul today where two men were fighting, acting like animals, he might take a chance to slip in between them with G-d’s help. Didn’t Abraham walk in between a split animal to bring transformation to oneness from separation? These two men who cannot discipline themselves in the Shul, are behaving like animals in the world of anger. Abraham could have… Read more »

Richard R.

As usual, I love your writings. If Abraham were alive today, he would be a genetic scientist. He would endeavor to give mankind genetic therapy to correct our dysfunctional behavioral genes with a much higher quality replacement.

Barry

There is a Rabbi who wrote a whole book on praying out of doors. It is called “G-d In the Wilderness” by Rabbi Jamie Korngold. She is called “the Adventure Rabbi.” The Mosaic Outdoor Mountain Club and Mosaic Outdoor Clubs of America once gave a copy of her book to all attendees of their annual Mosaic Outdoor Escape, although it was not called that at the time. A few dozen of us went to Colorado for a weekend with Rabbi Korngold about a month later. Very interesting unrolling a smaller than normal back-packable Torah on the ground and reading from… Read more »

I wonder why would Abraham walk into a shul? After all it as not his habit to follow crowds,he rather waited for people to encounter,and than imparted on them his hospitality and wisdom. Had he happenned to pass any fighting peole:hed probably ask: excuse me,what can I do for you? Please do not hurt one another.let me do something for you.
And perhaps a soft voice and a big heart wouldve stopped them for a moment,lowered the temperature ,and a possibility of a new perspective mediated by Abraham could ve emerged.

Richard R

I love you! There is not much more to say. You have an amazing gift for getting to the essence of things.You need to be cloned and via stem cell transplants, transfer that wonderful part of you to others. Shabbat Shalom!

Tuvia Bolton

Avraham would have done exactly what the Rebbe in fact did; everything possible to bring peace and Torah…. and they probably would punch him too!

Bat Ami

Abraham would begin to sing a simple little niggun, so charming that it would be irresistable to the bystanders and they all chime in. The fighters come to realize that their actions have a soundtrack and they are looking ridiculous. They begin to laugh and their fight becomes a dance. The singers begin to add laughing sounds to the niggun, ha ha hah and join in the dance. Everyone is laughing and singing and dancing and the fight is over. From then on, whenever a fight breaks out everyone breaks out into song, and if there is still eisek (contention)… Read more »

alex

The role model to follow in quest of an answer to your query is Moses, a spiritual successor to Abraham. Twice he intervened in Egypt, when he saw that if he didnt step in, no one would.
One of the themes in the Torah is that we are responsible, even if we are alone, and it depends on us to take action.

Yvette

Abraham will look at our doing and understanding about religion with compassion and love. He will understand that human beings need a lot of fight and it is challenging in there life to understand finally that the divine is within us,
Not in judgment, not in the shul, not outside us.
He will teach us that it doesnt mean the fact of only doing mitzvot because we are afraid of punishment; we are able to change, love ourselves, the other and be with G-D every moment in every situation. Thank you for your weekly mail. Yvette

Yvette

Abraham will look at our doing and understanding about religion with compassion and love. He will understand that human being need a lot of fight and challenging in their life to understand finally that the divine is within us.
Not in judgment, not in the shul.

Hanna Perlberger

Dear Rabbi, I have read and been inspired by your weekly drvei Torah for years – thank you. At age 33, I became a BT. Lech Lecha was always my favorite parshah, as I felt I had to do the same thing – leave my family, my culture, my peers to take this on. That takes a certain moxie to go against the grain and for that we have Abraham to thank for his spiritual DNA encoded in us all. And then we come up against – If your tablecloth on Friday night isnt white, your kids will never be… Read more »

Gershon Sandler

Religiouse Chabadnick gets convicted of Defrauding his fellow Jews by Court of Law is now waiting out come of appeal,While waiting for out come does it again and is convicted by Beisdin.Has his own shtetle Shull and continuosley Blasfeemes.Does one then Disasosiate one self from him.
I am not a Chabadnick but a religouse secular Jew.What do I do?

Bunny S.

In so far as my experience with your particular congregation (which I wish I could join but I am too far at present), Avraham would be tickled pink since I was a guest in the nearby hospital and was visited and nurtured by your congregation, just as Avraham would have done and did when seeing strangers coming near his tent.As far as the negative in religion, they are from the individual people, they seem to be in all religions, and it is the continual human struggle to go out of your way to fight the evil inclination and the apathy… Read more »

Alexa

I imagine Abraham would indeed speak up in the synagogue had he witnessed a fight between 2 men, and Im sure he would do it with kindness ruling over judgment, and with love in his heart. There is no one that is past help or that cannot be changed. And in those times when we, in our judgment, cannot say or do something effective to quelch a fight, perhaps our concern will leave an impact, a lingering thought in one or both of the people engaged in that fight, that yes, someone out there cares, and that others are affected… Read more »

alex

It may be noteworthy to observe that Abraham was born and raised, into an urban environment. (Ur, his birth place, was at that time one of the great cities.) Yet, it became essential for his spiritual development to leave the cacophony of city life behind. By dint of his relocation and means of livelihood, he became a man of the fields, a roamer. Given his spiritual bent, and his evolving relationship to God, his communications with God (prayer/meditation) occurred in the great outdoors. This certainly established a template for outdoor communing with God, at least for a couple of generations,… Read more »

Moshe

Dear Rabbi: when I lived in Israel the one thing I liked was that it didnt matter what type of Jew I was, being jewish was enough and from that space of freedom I was able to practice and keep Shabbat and observe Halacha without feeling too constricted. As I went on in my journey and moved back to the US I became more concretized and less flexible as I tried to integrate into the American Jewish experence. Finally I dropped out of organized Orthodoxy for the very reasons you site in this article. I love being Jewish. It is… Read more »

marilyn

Every time it comes to the Parshat of Vayaira and Chayei Sara I am troubled. What troubles me? Mainly, the following: Avraham taking his son to sacrifice him and yes, he didnt and yes, it was a test and yes yes yes…but all that I am left with is that Avraham took his son to sacrifice him while Sara wakes up running around to find him (probably like all of us wives…knows the mishagas of our husbands) and drops dead from most surely a heart attack or who knows what at her age. Then the beloved husband nicely gets her… Read more »

Every time it comes to the Parshat of Vayaira and Chayei Sara I am troubled. What troubles me? Mainly, the following: Avraham taking his son to sacrifice him and yes, he didnt and yes, it was a test and yes yes yes…but all that I am left with is that Avraham took his son to sacrifice him while Sara wakes up running around to find him (probably like all of us wives…knows the mishagas of our husbands) and drops dead from most surely a heart attack or who knows what at her age. Then the beloved husband nicely gets her… Read more »

daniel Antopolsky

I love our heritage of our Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and sages…….Of course, arguing and fighting, G-d forbid, in front of a Torah is inexcusable…….This is the core of Jewish disunity, which prolongs our sufferings as a people and feeds our galut mentality…..This makes it much easier for our world dominated ty Avraham Avinus other child and grandchild (Ishmael and Essau) to misjudge, mistreat, harrass, abuse, malign, and even murder us. Only Jewish unity, love, and understanding will bring an end to fights both inside and outside the synagogue.

chaim teleshevsky

I am quite interested in hearing what in fact your reaction to this usual disturbing scene was… and what you would have in retrospect have liked to have done.

In fact, if you can, tell what would be the apropriate reaction for children who continuously experience their father humiliating their mother?

Sarah

Brilliant Article Rabbi. As usual you hit home on many points.

I believe that if Abraham was alive today that he would teach us to pray as he did, not in a structure but in the field.

I also believe that if Abraham saw the two men fighting in the synagogue, he wouldnt have kept quiet. He would have stopped it. Behaviour as that would not be tolerated during prayer.

Thank you again

Sarah

Joshua Abrams

Dear rabbi Simon, Wow. Great insight and inclusive too. Wish our father Abraham would see us now as we really try to improve ourselves and the world around us. Thanks for empowering us to access the modern day message of Abraham. Shabbat Shalom!

california

Why arent these emails reaching more people? The Rabbi is an absolute breath of fresh air for religion in general and judaism in particular.

LATM

Amy

Great Article…I think Abraham took more a kabalistic or spiritual approach to everything he did and did not act like a machine as you say which is the best way to inspire others to act. no one wants rules! I am a social justice activist/advocate (for jews and non jews alike)…and Abraham’s vision is the true essence of what inspires me to keep going and stay focused to the true meaning in what I am doing; inspiring others from their core…from the humbleness in everyone..it just needs to be extracted! Also…I am a recent balachuva, so the questions you bring… Read more »

navi zeiler

Hayom yom from the 26th of cheshvon:The true way is to know ones charector,truely recognizing ones own deficiencies-he should correct them with actual avoda,and not satisfy himself merely with bemoaning them.i bet avraham would be very proud of his children and grandchildren.look how much we care about one another-even if some behavior is undesierable.look how much we care.groaning by itself wont do a bit of good.A groan is only a key to open the heart and eyes,so as not to sit there with folded arms,but to plan orderly work and activity,each person wherever he can be effective,to campaign for bolstering… Read more »

Esther Sarah Evans

bHYes, I know where you are coming from concerning the fights, etc., from personal observation. I especially agree with what you said at the end – about each one of us having an inner Avraham. We should just encourage that inner Avraham. From personal experience I remember two things that especially turned me on and gave me hope in Shul:1) the Maasim one rabbi always used to tell in the way somebodys Zeyde might, but with rabbinical authority mixed in – masterpieces of supposedly homely narrative – that dealt with difficulties, encouraged, you name it. 2) the sincerity of a… Read more »

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