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History Crash Course #4: Abraham's Journey

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Ken Spiro

Abraham gave rise to a nation of Hebrews -- people who live "on the other side."

More than one hundred years ago author Mark Twain posed a fascinating question concerning the Jews:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of smoke lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning, are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all ages: and has done it with his hands tied behind him.

All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?(1)

The answer to this question can be found in the remote beginnings of the Jewish people, in the earliest stories in the Bible.

As mentioned previously, history is a guidebook for the future. The early lessons of Jewish history reveal a pattern, so we have to pay extra special attention to anything that happens at this period of time. We also have to pay special attention to the characters themselves. Just as these early stories are the paradigm for future events, so too are the earliest personalities in Genesis the model for the collective nature of the Jewish people throughout history.

If this is the case, then from the Jewish perspective, the most important Biblical character to understand is Abraham. This is why I call Abraham "the proto-Jew." He personifies everything that could be characterized as the "Jewish personality." His strengths, mission, drive and idealism are reflected in all the generations of the Jewish people that come after him.(2)

Abraham was certainly one of the great truth-seekers of all time. He was also famous for his kindness and hospitality(3). But the attribute that probably stands out more than any other and truly epitomizes the essence of what Abraham, and therefore the Jewish people, is all about is drive. To stand alone for thousands of years against the entire world; to dedicate oneself, heart and soul, to the ultimate cause of perfecting the world requires tremendous strength of character. This drive is an outstanding feature of Abraham's personality and we see its manifestation in every generation of the Jewish people. From Abraham onward, we see this idealism -- an uncompromising drive to "change the world" -- in the collective Jewish personality.

It is because of this drive that the Jews have historically been tremendous over-achievers and have been at the forefront of virtually every major advance, cause, or social movement in world history. (Jews have not only been awarded a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes for their intellectual contributions, but have led movements such as communism, socialism, feminism, civil rights, labor unions, etc.)(4) Notes professor of Social Philosophy Ernest Van den Haag:

Asked to make a list of the men who have most dominated the thinking of the modern world, many educated people would name Freud, Einstein, Marx and Darwin. Of these four, only Darwin was not Jewish. In a world where Jews are only a tiny percentage of the population, what is the secret of the disproportionate importance the Jews have had in the history of Western culture? ... The Jews have invented more ideas, have made the world more intelligible, for a longer span and for more people than any other group. They have done this indirectly, always unintentionally and certainly not in concert, but never the less comprehensibly... Jews continue to feel the yoke, the task, the moral mission of being Jews-of preserving themselves as such, and to the surprise, scorn, and at times hatred of the rest of the world, of refusing to become anything else... Jews may call themselves humanists, or atheists, socialists or communists...they may even dislike Jewishness and deny it in scientific terms. But, rarely do they refuse to carry it...They won't give up being Jewish even when they consciously try to, when they change their names, intermarry, and do everything to deny Jewishness. Yet they remain aware of it, and though repudiating it, they cling to it; they may repress it, but do act it out symptomatically. Their awareness of their Judaism is shared by others simply because their denial is so ambivalent. Unconscious or not, at least some part of every Jew does not want to give up its Jewishness(5).

The answer to Van den Haag's question lies in understanding the personality of Abraham.


If the Bible is our paradigm for Jewish history and if Abraham is the model for generations of Jews then we must pay special attention to the earliest descriptions of Abraham in Genesis. By examining just the first few sentences in Genesis 12 we can identify several sweeping and patterns that will characterize all future Jewish history.

God said to Abram, "Go from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)

We know that the Bible isn't like the writings of Charles Dickens. Dickens got paid by the word, and he would be as verbose as possible. God is the exact opposite. Instead of filling the text of the Bible with pages of details and minutia, the narrative is limited to the bare minimum of relevant information that we need to know. So the question we have to ask is: Why does God, Who uses words so sparingly throughout the whole Bible, repeat this command so emphatically? "Separate yourself completely, not just from your land, but from your birthplace, from your father's house."

If you grew up in a specific house for a period of time, that place will always be home for you. When you think of home, no matter where you've lived after that and how comfortable you've been, you'll always think about it as home. There's a very deep connection. So God is saying to Abraham: "Separate yourself on the most basic emotional level."

More importantly, from the macrocosmic, historical perspective, God is saying to Abraham, and therefore the Jewish people: "Separate yourself completely and go in a different direction."

The journey that God is directing Abraham to undertake is not just a physical journey; it's a journey through history that is going to be different from anyone else's. Abraham is going to become a father to a nation with a destiny. "...a nation that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the rest of the nations." (Numbers 23:9) As already mentioned, we see this concept of the Jews as a nation manifest itself in the double standard constantly applied to modern Israel.

This is the first characteristic of Jewish history.

In this first sentence we see that God not only commands Abraham to leave his homeland, but to go to a specific piece of real estate which will later be know as the Land of Israel. This is the first promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants. From this point on we will see that there is a special relationship between the Land of Israel and the Jews. This special relationship is the second aspect of Jewish history. We will discuss this relationship in more detail in the next chapter.

The third aspect of Jewish history we see in the next verse:

"I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great; and you will be a blessing." (Genesis 12:2)

This verse conveys God's promise that He will be actively involved in Jewish history: "I will make you ..."

In the 17th century when Blaise Pascal, the great French enlightenment philosopher, was asked by Louis XIV for proof of the supernatural, he answered, "The Jewish people, your Majesty." Why? Because he knew Jewish history and he realized that for the Jewish people to survive to the 17th century, violated all the laws of history. Can you imagine what he'd say seeing the Jews made it to the 20th century?! Jewish history is a supernatural phenomenon.

The Jewish people should never have come into existence. With Abraham's wife Sarah being barren, that should have been it. Abraham would have died childless, and his mission would have died with him. But it didn't. A miracle happened.

Many scholars and well-known personalities have taken note that Jewish history is in fact , that it violates all the laws of history. Writes Professor Nicholai Berdyaev (Russian philosopher 1874-1948):

Their [the Jews] destiny is too imbued with the "metaphysical" to be explained either by material or positive historical terms... Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by special predetermination... The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history; all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny...(6)

Thus we learn that the Jewish people come into being miraculously and survive all of human history miraculously, outlasting even the greatest empires.

Things happen to the Jews that don't happen to other peoples. This is so because the Jews are a nation with a mission, a nation with a history-A nation whose role is so essential that they cannot be allowed to disappear.

To live for 2000 years as a nation without a national homeland is not normal. It's in human history. To re-establish a homeland in the place that was yours 2000 years ago is not normal. It's unprecedented in human history.

The fourth aspect of Jewish history is found in the second half of the same sentence: "...and you will be a blessing." The tiny Jewish nation that should never have come into existence and should certainly never have survived will profoundly impact all of humanity. This point refers back to what was already mentioned: the mission of Abraham and his descendants as "a light to the nations."(7) More than 3,700 years after the birth of Abraham, there is no doubt that the world has been profoundly blessed by the Jews. In the words of John Adams, second president of the United States:

I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation...They are the most glorious nation to ever inhabit this earth...They have given religion to three quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind, more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.(8)

You can see the incredibly positive impact the Jews have had on the world. The most basic of all is that the Jews have contributed the values that are now linked with democracy -- the values that come from the Torah -- respect for life, justice, equality, peace, love, education, social responsibility etc.

And number five:

"I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you, and through you, will be blessed all the families of the earth." (Genesis 12:3)

God is saying here to Abraham that he and his descendants -- the Jews -- will be under God's protection. The empires, nations and peoples that are good to the Jews will do well. Empires, nations and peoples that are bad to the Jews will do poorly. And the whole world is going to be changed by the Jewish people.

That is one of the great patterns of history. You can literally chart the rise and fall of virtually all the civilizations in the western world and the Middle East Spain, Germany, Poland, America or Turkey etc, by how they treated the Jews. (Ironically, most nations have treated the Jews both benevolently and malevolently. It is an oft repeated pattern that the Jews are first invited into a country and then later persecuted and expelled from the same country) We will see this pattern time and time again as we go through the history of the Jews in Diaspora.

Part of this phenomenon, by the way, is not so supernatural, because if you have a group of people living within your country -- an educated, driven, dedicated, loyal, creative, well-connected people -- and you're nice to them and you allow them to participate and contribute in a meaningful way, your country is going to benefit. If you crush those people and expel them, you're going to suffer, because of the economic fallout. But, of course, there's much more going on than just that. In the words of Thomas Newton (1704-1782), the Bishop of Bristol:

The preservation of the Jews is really one of the most signal and illustrious acts of Divine Providence...and what but a supernatural power could have preserved them in such a manner as none other nation upon earth hath been preserved. Nor is the providence of God less remarkable in the destruction of their enemies, than in their preservation... We see that the great empires, which in their turn subdued and oppressed the people of God, are all come to ruin...And if such hath been the fatal end of the enemies and oppressors of the Jews, let it serve as a warning to all those, who at any time or upon any occasion are for raising a clamor and persecution against them(9).

So we have a final pattern -- the rise and fall of nations and empires is going to be based on how they treat the Jews, which is an amazing idea, and one you can clearly demonstrate in human history.

So from these three verses in Genesis we see the key underlying patterns of all of Jewish history.

Abraham's journey is the paradigm. His personal life and the life of his immediate descendants are going to be a mini-version, a microcosm, of what Jewish history is all about.

  1. Mark Twain, The Complete Essays of Mark Twain (New York: Double Day: 1963) 249.
  2. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 97a) discusses this concept and uses the phrase Hen maminim b'nei maminim, "They (the Jews) are believers, the sons of believers" The first believer is of course Abraham. He passes on to his children a kind of spiritual genetics-a drive and intensity that has always characterized the he Jewish people.
  3. See Talmud: Sota: 10b for an explanation of how Abraham used hospitality as a tool to bring people back to God.
  4. "Disproportionate" is really an understatement. Take virtually ANY cause in modern history (communism, socialism, Black civil rights, anti-apartheid, labor unions, anti-globalization, SDS, feminism etc, etc) and if it isn't founded by Jews (who make up just one quarter of one percent of the world's population) it is overwhelmingly, disproportionately run by Jews. The explanation of this phenomenon is that nothing comes as close to Abraham's original mission to perfect the world as a cause. This explains why so many Jews today, the vast majority of who are disconnected from their Jewish heritage, none-the-less still have that high-powered Jewish soul pushing them to make an impact.
  5. Van Den Haag, Ernest, The Jewish Mystique. ( New York: Stein and Day, 1969): 13, 38-44.
  6. Prof. Nicholai Berdyaev The Meaning of History. (London. 1935) 86-7.
  7. For a more detailed explanation of this impact see my book WorldPerfect-The Jewish Impact on Civilization. (Health Communications Inc., Deerfield, Florida, 2003)
  8. John Adams, From a letter to F.A. Van der Kemp, 1806.
  9. Allan Gould, ed. What Did They Think of the Jews? (Northvale, New Jersey :Jason Aronson Inc..1997), 92-93..
Crash Course in Jewish History
Article #4 of 68

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