Before we delve into the significance and position of the people of Israel in the world, we need to look into why the Israeli nation formed, and how that forming unfolded. Let us, for a moment, journey roughly six thousand miles to the east, and roughly four thousand years back in time, to ancient Mesopotamia, the heart of the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of civilization. Situated within a vast, lush stretch of land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in what today is Iraq, a city-state called Babylon played host to a flourishing civilization. Bustling with life and action, it was the trade center of the ancient world.
Babylon, the heart of that dynamic civilization, was a melting pot, an ideal substrate on which myriad belief systems and teachings grew and flourished. The Babylonians practiced many kinds of idol worship. Sefer HaYashar [The Book of the Upright One] describes the life of the Babylonians at the time, and how they worshipped: “All the people of the land made each his own god in those days—gods of wood and stone. They worshipped them, and they became gods to them. In those days, the king and all his servants, and Terah [Abraham’s father] and his entire household, were the first among the worshippers of wood and stone. … [Terah] would worship them and bow to them, and so did the whole of that generation. Yet, they had abandoned the Lord, who had created them, and there was not a single man in all the land who knew the Lord…”[i]
Still, Terah’s son, Abraham, who then still went by the name, Abram, possessed a certain quality that made him unique: he was unusually perceptive, with a scientific zeal for the truth. Abraham was also a caring person, who noticed that his town’s people were becoming increasingly unhappy. When he reflected on it, he found that the cause of their unhappiness was the growing egotism and alienation that were taking hold among them. Within a relatively short period of time, they declined from unity and mutual caring, having been “Of one language and of one speech” (Genesis 11:1), into vanity and alienation, saying “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name” (Genesis, 11:4).
In fact, they were so preoccupied with building their tower of pride that they completely forgot about the people who were once as kin to them. The composition, Pirkey de Rabbi Eliezer (Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer), one of the Midrashim (commentaries) on the Torah (Pentateuch), offers a vivid description not only of the Babylonians’ vanity, but also of the alienation with which they regarded one another. The book writes, “Nimrod said to his people, ‘Let us build us a great city and dwell in it, lest we are scattered across the earth like the first ones, and let us build a great tower within it, rising toward the heaven … and let us make us a great name in the land…’
“They built it high … those who would bring up the bricks climbed up from its eastern side, and those who climbed down, descended from its western side. If a person fell and died, they would not mind him. But if a brick fell, they would sit and cry and say, ‘When will another come up in its stead.’”[ii]
The attitude of Abraham’s countryfolk toward each other troubled him, and he would come there and observe the builders’ conduct. Pirkey de Rabbi Eliezer continues to describe his observations of their animosity toward each other: “Abraham, son of Terach, went by and saw them building the city and the tower.” He tried to speak to them and tell them about the Creator, the governing force of unity he had discovered, to attest that things would be great if only they went by the law of unity, as well. “But they loathed his words,” the book describes. Instead, “They wished to speak each other’s language,” as before, when they were still of one language, “But they did not know each other’s language. What did they do? They each took his sword and fought one another to death. Indeed, half the world died there by the sword.”[iii]
In light of his people’s dire situation, Abraham resolved to spread the tenet he had found, regardless of the risks. In his composition, HaYad HaChazakah (The Mighty Hand), also known as Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Torah), the renowned 12th century scholar, Maimonides (the RAMBAM), describes Abraham’s determination and efforts to discover life’s truths: “Ever since this firm one was weaned, he began to wonder. …He began to ponder day and night, and he wondered how it was possible for this wheel to always turn without a driver? Who is turning it, for it cannot turn itself? And he had neither a teacher nor a tutor. Instead, he was wedged in Ur of the Chaldeans among illiterate idol worshippers, with his mother and father, and all the people worshipping stars, and he—worshipping with them.”[iv]
In his quest, Abraham discovered the unity, the oneness of reality, that singular creative force that creates, sustains, and drives all of reality toward its goal. In Maimonides’ words, “[Abraham] attained the path of truth … with his own correct wisdom, and knew that there is one God there who leads… that He has created everything, and that in all that there is, there is no other God but Him.”[v]
To understand just what it is that Abraham attained, keep in mind that when Kabbalists speak of God, they aren’t referring to an almighty being or to a force that you must worship, please, and appease, which in return rewards devout worshippers with health, wealth, long life, and other worldly benefits. Instead, Kabbalists identify God with Nature, the whole of Nature.
Rav Yehuda Ashlag, known as Baal HaSulam (Owner of the Ladder), made several unequivocal statements on the meaning of the term, “God.” Succinctly, he explains that God is synonymous with Nature. In the essay, “The Peace,” Baal HaSulam writes (in a slightly edited excerpt), “To avoid having to use both tongues from now on—‘Nature’ and a ‘Supervisor’—between which, as I have shown, there is no difference…it is best for us to … accept the words of the Kabbalists that HaTeva [The Nature] is the same…as Elokim [God]. Then, I will be able to call the laws of God ‘Nature’s commandments,’ and vice-versa, for they are one and the same, and we need not discuss it further.” [vi]
“At forty years of age,” writes Maimonides, “Abraham came to know his Maker,” the single law of Nature, which creates all things. But Abraham did not keep his discovery to himself: “He began to provide answers to the people of Ur of the Chaldeans, to converse with them and to tell them that the path on which they were walking was not the path of truth.”[vii] Alas, Abraham was confronted by the establishment, which in his case was Nimrod, king of Babel.
Midrash Rabbah, written in the 5th century C.E., presents a vivid description of Abraham’s confrontation with Nimrod, a glimpse into the hardships that Abraham suffered for his discovery and his dedication to the truth. It also provides an amusing peek into Abraham’s fervor. “Terah [Abraham’s father] was an idol worshipper [who made his living building and selling statues at the family shop]. Once, he went to a certain place and told Abraham to sit in for him. A man walked in and wanted to buy a statue. [Abraham] asked him, ‘How old are you?’ And the man replied, ‘Fifty or Sixty.’ Abraham told him: ‘Woe unto he who is sixty and must worship a day-old statue.’ The man was embarrassed and left.
“Another time, a woman came in with a bowl of semolina. She told him, ‘Here, sacrifice before the statues.’ Abraham rose, took a hammer, broke all the statues, then placed the hammer in the hands of the biggest one. When his father returned, he asked him, ‘Who did this to them?’ [Abraham] replied, ‘A woman came. She brought them a bowl of semolina and asked me to sacrifice before them. I sacrificed, and one said, ‘I will eat first,’ and the other said, ‘I will eat first.’ The bigger one rose, took the hammer, and broke them.’ His father said, ‘Are you fooling me? What do they know?’ And Abraham replied, ‘Are your ears hearing what your mouth is saying?’”[viii]
At that point, Terah felt that he could no longer discipline his brazen son. “[Terah] took [Abraham] and handed him over to Nimrod [the king, but also the highest spiritual authority in Babylon]. [Nimrod] told him, ‘Worship the fire.’ Abraham responded, ‘Perhaps I should worship the water, which quenches the fire?’ Nimrod replied, ‘Worship the water!’ [Abraham] told him: ‘Then perhaps I should worship the cloud, which carries the water?’ [Nimrod] told him, ‘Worship the cloud!’
“[Abraham] told him: ‘In that case, should I worship the wind, which disperses the clouds?’ He told him, ‘Worship the wind!’ [Abraham] told him, ‘And should we worship man, who withstands the wind?’ [Nimrod] told him: ‘You speak too much; I worship only the fire. I will throw you in it, and let the God you worship come and save you from it!
“Haran [Abraham’s brother] stood there. He said, ‘If Abraham wins, I will say that I agree with Abraham, and if Nimrod wins, I will say that I agree with Nimrod.’ When Abraham descended to the furnace and was saved, they asked [Haran], ‘Whom are you with?’ He told them: ‘I am with Abraham.’ They took him and threw him in the fire, and he died in the presence of his father. Thus it was said, ‘And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah.’”[ix]
So Abraham withstood Nimrod, but was expelled from Babylon and left for the land of Haran (pronounced Charan, to distinguish it from Haran, Terah’s son). But Abraham did not stop circulating his discovery just because he was exiled from Babylon. Maimonides’ elaborate descriptions tell us, “He began to call out to the whole world, to alert them that there is one God to the whole world… He called out, wandering from town to town and from kingdom to kingdom, until he arrived in the land of Canaan…
“And since they [people in the places where he wandered] gathered around him and asked him about his words, he taught everyone…until he brought them back to the path of truth. Finally, thousands and tens of thousands assembled around him, and they are the people of the house of Abraham. He planted this tenet in their hearts, composed books about it, and taught his son, Isaac. And Isaac sat and taught and warned, and informed Jacob, and appointed him a teacher, to sit and teach… And Jacob the Patriarch taught all his sons. He separated Levi and appointed him the head, and had him sit and learn the way of God…”[x]
To guarantee that the truth would carry through the generations, Jacob “commanded his sons not to stop appointing appointee after appointee from among the sons of Levi, so the knowledge would not be forgotten. This continued and expanded in the children of Jacob and in those accompanying them.”[xi]
[i] Sefer HaYashar [The Book of the Upright One], Portion Noah, Parasha 13 item 3.
[ii] Pirkey de Rabbi Eliezer [Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer], Chapter 24
[iv] Rav Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides), Mishneh Torah (Yad HaChazakah (The Mighty Hand)), Part 1, “The Book of Science,” Chapter 1, Item 1.
[v] Maimonides, Yad HaChazakah (The Mighty Hand), Part 1, “The Book of Science,” Chapter 1, Item 10.3.
[vi] Rav Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag (Baal HaSulam), The Writings of Baal HaSulam, “Peace in the World” (Ashlag Research Institute, Israel, 2009), 406-7.
[vii] Maimonides, Yad HaChazakah (The Mighty Hand), Part 1, “The Book of Science,” Chapter 1, Item 12.3.
[viii] Midrash Rabbah, Beresheet, Portion 38, Item 13.
[ix] Midrash Rabbah, Beresheet, Portion 38, Item 13.
[x] Maimonides, Yad HaChazakah (The Mighty Hand), Part 1, “The Book of Science,” Chapter 1, Item 15.3.
[xi] Maimonides, Yad HaChazakah (The Mighty Hand), Part 1, “The Book of Science,” Chapter 1, Item 16.ibid.