Conclusion: Fathers and Fables
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. — The Bene Gesserit “Litany of Fear”
Avraham Avinu Is My Father
Consider the position of the convert. The convert feels part of the covenant of Israel and is called the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah—even though, in a literal sense, he or she is not. In many ways we are all like the convert. Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s. Going back three and half millennia, I really don’t know who my ancestors were, but even if I did know, I am not sure that this information would be more than mildly interesting. My actual forefather has had little impact on my conscious life, whatever his contribution to my DNA and current existence may be. The same cannot be said for our father Abraham, Avraham Avinu.
Abraham lives and breathes in my consciousness in a real and vibrant way. Every year I read his story in the Torah, read the embellishments of his story in Chazal (rabbinic literature), and hear and teach lessons from his story in sermons and divrei Torah. I learn from his example, try to copy his successes and learn from his failures. His defense of Sodom stands out as a pillar of ethical thinking and his ability to follow his trust in God over any type of adversity makes him the model of faithfulness for all Jews. My progenitor, whoever he was, is just that, but Avraham Avinu is my father.
The Fox and the Fish
I was once asked by a friend how I can go on being an Orthodox Jew when I believe that virtually all of the stories in the Torah are ahistorical. I responded with a story from the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 61b). During the Hadrianic persecutions, when the teaching of Torah was a capital offense, a man named Pappos asks Rabbi Akiva why he continues to teach Torah if it could get him killed. Rabbi Akiva answers that a fox once asked a fish why he swims in water if he could get caught by fishermen. “Would it not be better,” the fox asks, “to hide on the dry land and avoid the nets?” The fish responds that this would be a bad idea. “Outside the water,” the fish says, “I will surely die; inside the water I have a chance.” “I am the fish,” says Rabbi Akiva, “and the Torah is my water.”
This is a powerful story about Rabbi Akiva’s commitment to his faith and people. Now, if Pappos had responded by saying, “Akiva, you are telling tales—fish don't talk,” he would have been missing the point. "It doesn't matter whether fish talk," we would respond, "Rabbi Akiva's story is still true." Now, I am going to tell you something else: there was no Pappos; the story is a fictional account, written in Babylonia four hundred years after Rabbi Akiva’s death. Nevertheless, that is not the point; it is still true.
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March 27, 2013
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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