Abraham and the Rise of Judaism

Abraham faced struggles that no other person experienced before or since. As a result of successfully overcoming these challenges, he became the father of the Jewish people. When yet a child, without the positive role models of parents, teachers, and society, he discovered the existence of G‑d entirely on his own. At great personal risk, he introduced the major principles of monotheism to a world in which the concept did not exist. Ordered by the wicked King Nimrod to recant his beliefs, Abraham refused, even when threatened with death. His staunch refusal was all the more remarkable, considering that Abraham had never received communication from G‑d and thus had no idea of being saved or of earning eternal reward in the next world. Miraculously, Abraham emerged from Nimrod’s fiery furnace unscathed.

Later, Abraham left his hometown, Ur, in southern Iraq, and settled in the land of Israel, where he taught multitudes the Jewish concept of G‑d. He is One, Abraham said, timeless, incorporeal, benevolent, and demands moral and ethical behavior from mankind. At the age of 70, Abraham received a prophetic vision in which G‑d promised that Abraham would become the forerunner of a nation totally devoted to G‑d’s service, and that this nation would inherit the land of Israel. The promise was realized when at age 90 Abraham’s wife Sarah gave birth to his son Isaac.

G‑d tested Abraham’s faith 10 times. The greatest of these challenges was the Akeidah, the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Aside from the personal tragedy of losing his son, Abraham faced the total destruction of his life’s work. First, Abraham’s greatest desire was to establish a nation that would continue his G‑dly mission, a dream that would not be realized if Isaac perished. Second, Abraham would be revealed as a charlatan and a fraud. Indeed, for many years Abraham preached that G‑d abhors human sacrifice, and suddenly he stood accused of that very same crime! Nevertheless, Abraham responded to G‑d’s command with alacrity. At the last moment, as Abraham held the knife above the neck of his bound son, G‑d told Abraham to desist and gave him the promise of eternal survival, which has sustained the Jewish people to this day. Countless Jews throughout the generations have emulated Abraham and Isaac, and have given up their lives, when necessary, Al Kiddush HaShem, to sanctify G‑d’s name. Abraham died in 2023 at the age of 175.


Isaac’s history was very different than that of his father. Unlike Abraham, Isaac was born in the land of Israel, and lived and died there. Unlike his father, a master teacher, Isaac saw as his life’s mission the solidifying of the spiritual foundation of the Jewish people through internal self-perfection. Therefore, he did not reach out to the masses in the manner of Abraham, although Issac did not entirely neglect outreach activities. When there was a famine, Isaac settled in the Philistine area of southwestern Israel. A remarkable episode took place there, one that is a portent for the Jewish experience throughout the exile: the story of Isaac and the wells. The following chart displays the striking similarities between Isaac’s life and future events and also illustrates the concept of maase avos siman l’banim: the events of our forefathers’ lives are a paradigm for those of their descendants:

Verse in Genesis (Chapter 26) Parallel in Jewish History
“And there was a famine in the land…and Isaac went to Abimelech the king of the Philistines, to Gerar.” (Genesis 26:1) Jews migrate to a new land seeking economic opportunity.
“And Isaac planted in that year, and he found in that year 100-fold, and G‑d blessed him. And the man became greater and greater, until he was exceedingly great.” (Genesis: 26:12-13) Jews prosper beyond the level of the native inhabitants.
“And he had much sheep and cattle and many workers, and the Philistines were jealous of him.” (Genesis 26:14) Newfound Jewish wealth provokes animosity of host nation.
“And all the wells that his father’s servants dug…the Philistines stopped up and filled them with earth.” (Genesis 26:15) Anti-Jewish discrimination
“And Abimelech said to Isaac, ‘Go from us for you are too powerful for us.’” (Genesis 26:16) Expulsion
“And Isaac’s servants dug a well…and the shepherds of Gerar fought over it, saying ‘the water is ours…’” (Genesis 26:19-21) Persecution
“And he moved from there and dug another well and they did not fight over it…” (Genesis 26:22) Jews find peace in another place.
“And Abimelech came to him…And Isaac asked them, ‘Why do you come to me after you hated and expelled me?’ And they replied, ‘We have seen how G‑d is with you…and we wish to make a treaty with you.’” (Genesis 26:26-28) Jews are invited back not because they are liked, but because they are economically advantageous.
“Lest you do evil with us, just as we have not touched you and have only done good to you.” (Genesis 26:29) Anti-Semites deny ever mistreating Jews.

Isaac died in 2228 at the age of 180.


Of all the Patriarchs, the Torah devotes the most space relating the events of Jacob’s life. More than any individual in Scripture, Jacob typifies the Jewish people in exile. He is the greatest personification of maase avos siman l’banim, a most important concept that teaches us the vicissitudes of this long exile are not haphazard coincidences, but rather are carefully orchestrated Divine events that first appeared in the dawn of our history. Just as Jacob only understood the meaning of his suffering at the end of his life, so too will the Jewish people finally realize the significance of their trials and tribulations at the time of the Messianic Era.

Jacob was born in 2108, when Isaac was 60 years old. At the age of 15, he purchased the birthright from his twin brother Esau. This meant that Jacob’s branch of the family would be the nucleus of a nation that would devote itself to the service of G‑d. When Jacob was 63, an event took place that would have major ramifications in Jewish history. At his mother Rebecca’s command, Jacob impersonated his brother and received from Isaac the blessings meant for Esau. Bestowal of these blessings meant that Isaac validated Jacob’s birthright and that he was designated as the builder of the eternal Chosen People. Esau realized what he had forfeited and

developed a virulent hatred toward Jacob.

This implacable enmity has been passed down throughout the generations and is the source of anti-Semitism. The Roman Church, descended from Esau, saw itself as the New Israel, replacing the Jewish people whom G‑d had supposedly rejected, Heaven forbid. The Nazis, too, viewed themselves as the Master Race whose mission it was to eradicate the memory of the Jewish People.

Not all attacks on the Jewish people’s special status are so brazen. In today’s egalitarian society, the concept of the Chosen People has been greatly misunderstood. First, the meaning of chosen is that Jews have a covenantal relationship with G‑d to bring the world to spiritual perfection by keeping the Torah’s commandments and serving as spiritual role models, the proverbial light among the nations. Second, the covenantal relationship carries no notion of racial superiority, for any person may join the Jewish religion and become a member of the Chosen People regardless of race, color, or national origin.

After receiving Isaac’s blessings, Jacob fled his brother’s anger and settled in his uncle Laban’s house, where he worked for 20 years. Here he married his four wives, who gave birth to 11 sons, who in turn became the ancestors of the Tribes of Israel. (The 12th son, Benjamin, was born after Jacob left Laban.) An episode took place here that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Jewish experience throughout the ages:

Verse in Genesis (Chapter 30-31) Parallel in Jewish History
“You (Laban) had very little before I came, but since then it has increased and become very substantial.” (Genesis 30:30) Jews build up country
“The man (Jacob) became tremendously wealthy.” (Genesis 30:43) Jews prosper in exile.
“And he heard that Laban’s sons were saying, ‘Jacob has taken everything belonging to our father and has become rich by taking our father’s property.” (Genesis 31:1) Jews accused of exploiting country despite earning their wealth honestly.
“Your father swindled me and changed his mind about my pay at least 10 times, but G‑d would not let him harm me.” (Genesis 31:7) Jews prosper despite all restrictions and discriminatory laws.
“Jacob argued with Laban, ‘What is my crime?...What did you find from your house?...Never once did I take a ram from your flocks as food.” (Genesis 31:36-42) Jews try to prove their innocence to their anti-Semitic accusers.
“Laban replied, ‘the daughters are my daughters, the flocks are my flocks. All that you see is mine!’” (Genesis 31:43) Jewish entreaties fall on deaf ears.

After leaving Laban’s house, Jacob wrestled with Esau’s guardian angel and defeated him, Jacob sustaining an injury to his thigh in the process. This event foreshadowed what would transpire to the Jews in exile. The Jewish people survive, but suffer both physical and spiritual injuries. Tragically, countless numbers of Jews have perished throughout the ages, and countless others have been lost through assimilation, but the Jewish people have survived. When Jacob encountered Esau, who had come to kill our Patriarch, Jacob, through a combination of humility and diplomacy emerged unscathed. Jacob’s behavior toward Esau is described at great length in the Torah and has served as the example par excellence of how Jews are supposed to deal with an enemy that has physical superiority. Jacob died in 2255 at the age of 147. With the birth of his 12 sons, the foundation of the Jewish people was finally set.


“All that happened to Jacob happened to Joseph.” (Rashi, Genesis 37:2) The events of Joseph’s life likewise reverberate throughout Jewish history. Rabbinic tradition teaches that as a punishment for the 10 brothers’ sale of Joseph, 10 great sages, including Rabbi Akiva, were brutally executed by the Romans. The wife of Potiphar falsely imprisoned Joseph in Egypt on trumped-up charges of immorality; likewise, Christians in the Middle Ages killed their own children and accused innocent Jews of ritual murder, and in the United Nations, Israel stands accused of the most heinous crimes by nations such as Syria and Iraq, who have massacred countless numbers of their own citizens. In addition, Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt is the first of many cases of Jews succeeding in a foreign country. Joseph died in Egypt in 2309 at the age of 110, having served as the Divine conduit for bringing Jacob’s family to Egypt to escape hunger in the land of Israel.