William Hamilton

Abraham’s voice today

“Tell me about Abraham. Who was he?” “It depends,” I reply to a curious adherent of Hinduism. “He is a little different for each of his three established religions. If you happen to follow Christianity, he is a believer par excellence, the pioneer of monotheism. If you are a Muslim, he is the symbol of unquestioning obedience in response to God’s demands. For Jews, Abraham is the originator of our people’s life in service to God.”

“Can’t he be all of those things?” he responds. “He can” I conclude. “so long as you are willing to approach balancing them the way he would.”

Abraham understood that more than one thing can be simultaneously true. Medical advancements can be dramatically improving, while life expectancy in the United States is going down. With online life, we are, at the same time, better connected and more divided than ever. Abraham’s life shows us not only how to hold contradictory truths in balance, but also how to turn them away from conflict toward greater advantage.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who passed from our world last year during the week when we read this week’s portion of Torah, called Abraham’s secret sauce the dignity of difference. That is, difference need not alienate nor be exclusionary in a world of scarcity. Rather, in our world of abundance, it may accept and even inspire. You can feel secure in your home and moved by the beauty of foreign places. Too often today, identity seems to exclude. Yet it can also invite. Your love for your own uniqueness can come across as an invitation for others to embrace theirs.

Abraham’s alert response to his last and most vexing trial, the Binding of Isaac, provides a subtle glimpse of how to cope with contradictory calls. How can Isaac’s essentialness to the covenant’s future coexist with his being offered on an altar? Here’s how. Elohim is the name God uses to convene the Binding of Isaac. Adonai is the name for the same God who interrupts it, enabling Abraham to bestow a name (Adonei yireh) on the place, calling it the mountain on which God will be seen, making it, forevermore, the focal point toward which we face whenever we do something important, like pray or get married. Two names for a single God (adonai eloheynu), representing the most-moved and the less-moved sides of God, somehow coexist.

How can this apply to our personal beliefs? The same God who presides over the patient flow at Children’s Hospital (not by God’s will, but nevertheless part of in an imperfect, corporeal world) is the God on whose shoulder I need to cry for support.

Interpersonally, it teaches us that particularity is the best way to appreciate what matters to others. When you express your singularity, your unlikeness – in a likable manner – you can also convey how important their special uniqueness is to you.

Abraham teaches that your beliefs aren’t just private property, they are also meant to awaken others to theirs.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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