This article of mine appeared November 3 on the Islamic web site Islamicity:’Flawed Humans Are Perfect For God’s Purposes’
For Muslims, and for all open minded religious people, Prophet Muhammad’s personality is the exemplary model of the true prophet. For Jews and Christians, Prophet Abraham and Sarah are exemplary personalities of how every human can truly achieve a sacred life as God’s servant in spite of, or indeed exactly through overcoming their own human flaws.
Thus, as a young man Abraham intentionally told a lie, for the purpose of teaching a lesson to the idol worshippers he lived among: “By Allah, I will surely plan against your idols after you have turned and gone away. So he made them into fragments, except a large one among them, that they might return to it [and question].” (Qur’an 21: 57-8) And when they did question him: “Have you done this to our gods, O Abraham?” Abraham said, “Rather, this – the largest of them – did it, so ask them, if they should [be able to] speak.” (Qur’an 21: 62-3)
And as a married man Abraham told his wife Sarah to tell the King’s soldiers that she was his sister: When God had me journey from my father’s household, I said to her, “This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.”’ (Genesis 20:13)
For Jews the Torah contains laws and commandments, but it also teaches us by example. For example, in the Torah we read about Sarah’s cynicism about becoming pregnant. We read about her jealousy of Hagar. We read about Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, and his decision to expel his first son Ishmael in favor of his second born child Isaac. We also read about this couple’s great hospitality and faith in God. What makes the Torah unique is that it offers us the true unadulterated experiences of our ancestors – the good, the bad, the ugly and the glorious.
Why? Why does the Torah expose our prophets and heroes as faulty human beings?
In Hebrew, the word Torah literally means “teaching’ or “instruction.’ The Torah is a book that instructs us faulty human beings by example. Our biblical ancestors are exemplars for us, not because they are perfect, but because they are flawed humans who make the same mistakes that we do and yet can and do achieve spiritual greatness.
The Torah understands human beings. Torah knows that we are not so good at seeing future outcomes. That is why the Torah is a compilation of characters who are at once wise and flawed. When we read the story of Sarah for example, we are reminded of our own propensity for jealousy and our tendency to react harshly towards those we find threatening.
Three times a day we pray the Amidah, our central prayer. In it, we are enjoined to invoke our ancestors: God of Avraham, God of Itzchak, God of Yaakov, God of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah… We open our central prayer with the names of these human beings, because we are Abraham, who mistakenly favored one child over another. We are Sarah, who feel threatened and in a jealous anger want to exile our competition. We are Jacob, who deceives his father and takes advantage of his brother. Yet it is precisely the lineage of Abraham and Jacob who God chose.
“Those were the ones upon whom Allah bestowed favor from among the prophets of the descendants of Adam and of those We carried [in the ship] with Noah, and of the descendants of Abraham and Jacob/Israel, and of those whom We guided and chose. When the verses of the Most Merciful were recited to them, they [Biblical prophets] fell in prostration and weeping. (19:58)
The phrase ‘they fell in prostration and weeping’ refers to their repentance and their overcoming of their flaws. Indeed, we learn from the Qur’an that: perfect for God’s purposes, forgetful, flawed prophets, lacking in determination, have existed since Adam: “And We had already taken a covenant/promise from Adam before, but he forgot; and We found not in him determination.” (20:115)
We are all of these personalities in various combinations. Their God is our God. The wisdom and inspiration that guided them, is the inspired wisdom that Torah offers us today. The knowledge that they could overcome, and even sanctify their flaws as an offering for God, helps us find redemption.
After all, the God who always selects Prophets that are perfect for God’s purposes; is the same God who commands us all to fast and repent for our all too human sins as the Qur’an states: “Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to Allah, does good, and follows the way of Abraham the true in Faith? For Allah did take Abraham for a friend” (Quran 4:125).
Rabbi Maller’s website is: www.rabbimaller.com. His new book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published by Islamic web sites) is now for sale ($15) on Amazon and Morebooks.