Abraham the Doubter

In this week’s reading from the Torah, we read of the end of Abraham’s life. What do we know about him? The Torah describes him as a pioneer, an adventurer who took a fantastic journey of discovery. Our tradition exalts and reveres Abraham as the spiritual father of the Jewish people. The Talmudic sages attribute to him a great depth of character and an inner strength that enabled him to withstand the pressure to conform. He is depicted as standing alone with great determination, upholding confidently his beliefs even if they were not popular or widely accepted.     He is called “Abraham the Hebrew” because the root of the word “Hebrew” means to stand apart from others, to be on the other side of where the crowd is headed. Abraham is deemed worthy of being God’s messenger in the world because he has an unquenchable faith.

And yet, there is plenty of evidence in the Torah that Abraham’s faith is not so solid. Soon after God appears to him and promises that he will be the father of a great and numerous nation, Abraham responds to God by saying, in essence, “What will you give me to prove that what you promise will happen?” What he wants is a child who will grow up to continue his story and champion his legacy. His need to have a child is understandable, but his request of God that he be given proof that the Divine promise will materialize is certainly evidence that Abraham’s faith needs to be reinforced in a tangible way.

In two instances, Abraham demonstrates that he ought to rely on himself rather than put his trust in God. He and Sarah travel to Egypt in search of food. Anticipating a meeting with the Pharaoh, Abraham tells Sarah that he is concerned that the Pharaoh will find his wife attractive and kill him in order to have her for himself (the same thing happens a while later with a King name Avimelech). One wonders why, if Abraham is so convinced that God will protect him, he must concoct a strategy based on a lie in order to save his life. True, Judaism encourages people to be self-sufficient and not rely on miracles. But Abraham doesn’t even seem to consider the idea that God will protect him from the Pharaoh or from Avimelech. What kind of faith is that?

Abraham seems to demonstrate faith in God by agreeing to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar on Mt. Moriyah. But a careful reading of the text convinces us that the whole episode distances Abraham from God. In Genesis 22:4, in the midst of the narrative known as the “Akeyda,” the “Binding of Isaac,” we read that after a journey of three days Abraham saw the place- the mountain where he would be asked to build an altar and sacrifice his son- “from afar.” The verse in Hebrew- Va-yar et ha-Makom mei-rachok– can be understood to mean that Abraham was distant from God (the word “ha-Makom” is often used to describe God, thus the verse could be translated as “he encountered God from a distance”). Rather than be seen as a story about testing or about protest, the Akeydah can be seen as a story about how our faith is not always sure or certain and how we often feel distant from God.

So who is the real Abraham? Is he the believer, the one who is certain that there is a God who loves and cares for him and who is showing him the way to go in the world? Or is he the doubter, the one who has a hunch about God but can’t be sure, the one who periodically expresses doubt that God will live up to all that He promises? Let me suggest that Abraham embodies both of these traits- he is both a believer and a doubter. At certain moments in his life, he is convinced that there is a God who will strengthen him and give him a direction to follow. And at other moments, the circumstances of his life lead him to doubt what he thought was true.

Such a person deserves to be known as the spiritual father of our people, for the tension between believing and doubting is one that we likely experience in our own spiritual lives. Rather than be confused or frustrated by our doubts about God, we might embrace them, knowing full well that we wouldn’t be the first to do so.

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