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The True Legacy of Abraham

Abraham is a figure revered by three religious traditions – Jewish,
Christian & Muslim. Without him, three of the world’s great
monotheistic faiths never would have been founded.
It is a well known truism that the burial place of Moses – another
prophet recognized by all three traditions – is unknown to this day,
for fear his grave will turn into an idolatrous shrine, in a misguided
attempt by those seeking to honor his legacy. Despite the fact that
Moses was the prime messenger to the world – from the heights of
Mt. Sinai no less - bearing the commandment“Thou Shalt Not
Worship Idols”, veneration of his personage could descend even
into idolatry, violating the very tenet he is famous for introducing
to the world.
What then would our forefather Abraham say about the current
conflicts in the world – where inflammatory videos, insulting
cartoons, and desecrations of holy texts, give rise to violent
protests, personal injury and even the murder of innocent people
(many with not even the slightest connection to the controversy)?
Our Rabbinic tradition poses this question: Why was Abraham
chosen to be the father of the Jewish People. What made him be
chosen for this honor - and not Noah for example?
One rabbinic approach suggests Abraham was chosen by God
because his compassion extended to all members of the human
family. When God reveals to Noah his intentions to destroy the
world, and commands Noah to build an ark for the few of those
who will survive the deluge, Noah issues not a single objection –
he is only too happy to oblige and immediately begin his
mammoth ark-building project.2
When God tells Abraham about God’s plan to destroy the cities
of Sodom and Gomorrah – cities so evil that till today their names
are synonymous with treachery – Abraham challenges God: What
about the righteous in these towns??? Shall you sweep away the
innocent along with the wicked? “Shall not the judge of all the
earth not act justly????”
Now Abraham was not pleading on behalf of his family members,
or relatives or even countryman – but on behalf of total strangers!
Thus, to be a follower of Abraham, by definition, is not just to care
for one’s own people. That’s natural, that’s almost automatic, all
nations and people do that – and of course we should do that as
well. But it also means we must care for all humanity, to fight for
all humanity, even those who may not be the most deserving.
We see a similar ethic at play in yet another famous section of the
Abrahamic story.
In Genesis 18, we are told:“God appeared to Abraham...while he
was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day”.
Suddenly and abruptly, the story veers in another direction. Three
wayfarers appear on the horizon and Abraham rushes to greet them
– to give them shade, water and food.
We know the rest of the story – the three men are actually angels
here to deliver a message to Abraham and Sarah that within a
period of time a child, later to be named Isaac, will be born to
them.
But, there seems to be a problem with the story here.3
How did it begin?
God appears unto Abraham…and then without telling us anything
about this interaction, we hear about three strangers that Abraham
rushes out to greet…
What happened here? If there was nothing of consequence about
Abraham and God’s meeting, why tell us about it at all? And if
God was actually meeting with Abraham, how could Abraham
suddenly cut off the Master of the Universe to greet three complete
strangers, three unknowns wandering in the desert?
Imagine you are having a conversation with the most important
person in the world – would you abruptly end your meeting, to
greet three dusty travelers, or a completely, unknown person, or a
homeless individual?
And Abraham was talking with God!!
But the rabbis answer – that’s precisely the point!!
The Torah tell us the story this way to teach you:
which roughly translated states as:
"Greater than the reception of God is the practice of hospitality to
strangers.”
This is God’s wish too- don’t spend your time with me, when it is
my children who are in need!!
What we learn here is a fundamental Jewish value – to serve God
in the Jewish tradition is to serve others, and not just our own
people, but those of all faiths.4
I am not sure how many of us have taken the time to watch the
now infamous 15-minute clip, “The Innocence of Muslims”. If
you haven’t, don’t. If you already have, this 15 minutes of your life
you will never get back. It is as insulting, juvenile and artless clip
as you will ever see. Oscar Wilde once said something akin to:
“There is no such as thing as moral art or immoral art, only good &
bad art.” Well I believe he is wrong. Art can be both moral and
good, immoral and bad. In this case, I would be tempted to say that
the film clip was comprised of both immoral content and bad art,
but that would be to suggest that it somehow classifies as art. It is
indeed as artless as it is hateful, whose only purpose is to incite
anger and enmity among those who it seeks to provoke.
But as tawdry a piece of work that it is, to use its creation as a
justification for the murder of innocent human beings – with the
rationale that you are defending God or his messenger - is
infinitely worse.
What Abraham teaches us is that no one should ever harm any one
in the name of God – in fact, it is your religious duty to first and
foremost take care of your fellow human beings. As Rabbi Israel
Salanter once said, “My neighbor’s physical well being, is my
spiritual responsibility.”
Unfortunately, the attacks in Libya and the murder of the innocent
American diplomats and others around the world, reveal a different
understanding of religion than the one Abraham sought to teach us. 5
Just a few days ago, there were riots in Sydney, Australia, a city
people often compared to Toronto, initiated by extremist Muslims
in the city, leading a protest to the US embassy and then a march
through some of the city’s most well known areas.
Violence, injuries to both police and
protesters, and arrests ensued. In one
soon to be iconic photograph, taken in
Sydney’s Hyde Park, a young child
holds up a banner with the words
‘‘behead all those who insult the
prophet’’ as he stands beside a baby
nestled in a carriage and a woman
wearing a hijab snaps a photo of them
both, with what looks like an Iphone.
That mixture of primitive ideology,
religion and modern technology -
placing a placard in the hands of a child
perhaps too young to even read, with
words encouraging murder on account
of an insult to a revered religious figure
– all being proudly captured by a family
relative with the ubiquitous “Iphone,”
perhaps the symbol of modernity –
could not help bring to mind the quote, “Science flies people to the
Moon. Religion flies people into buildings.”
What a contrast this image presents to Abrahams’ messageAbraham
pleads with God on behalf of even the most evil
members of society – and here a child is holding a placard
demanding execution in the name of God.6
Perhaps, the ultimate irony is this: Most people, after watching the
infamous video clip, only felt complete contempt for the
filmmakers, and their attempts to slur Islam. But the violent
extremist Islamist reactions around the world toward the piece –
that indeed is what truly tarnishes the reputation of Islam, that is
what causes people to recoil in revulsion, not the original piece that
most people never saw, and if they did, simply ignored. So, in
truth, who is really defaming Islam?
Yet, at the same time as protests like the violent ones in Sydney
were taking place, there is also another side to the story.
Following the events in Benghazi, around the world vigils were
held in a number of cities including Toronto, where Muslims
expressed their opposition to the violent reaction. In Toronto the
organizer of the candlelight vigil said, “the acts of these few
Muslims are horrific and simply do not represent Islam or do they
represent Muslims worldwide.” And I heard a young Muslim
woman on CBC Radio, pronounce how ashamed she was that
people were carrying out these attacks in her name, in the name of
her faith.
Let us hope and pray that these moderate Muslim voices are the
ones that will prevail, and that they will increasingly represent the
followers of Islam around the world.
The model of Abraham, the founder of the world’s greatest
monotheistic faiths, should remind us of this:
Any religion, ideology, philosophy, or movement – whether it is a
religious or a political one – and we have had our fair share of both
examples in history - that does not place the sanctity of human life
at its center, is taking a dramatically wrong turn in the
development of humanity.7
No matter how much inspiration you get from your religion, no
matter how close it brings you to your God, and what mystical
levels you might achieve, it pales in comparison to helping God’s
children, your sisters and brothers, who are down on their luck....it
does not hold a candle, to smiling at a stranger you happen to pass
by on the street, to opening your doors to a fellow human being in
trouble, to making the world a little friendlier place to those who
need it most.
This is what we learn from Abraham and Sarah’s humble tent
pitched in the desert some 3,500 years ago – and a message that all
world religions, political movements, their leaders and their
followers - would be wise to heed.
[Remarks based on sermon delivered by Eli Rubenstein, Monday, September 17,
2012, at Congregation Habonim, First Day of Rosh Hashana]

Mon, April 6 2020 12 Nisan 5780