Abraham and the Elderly Traveler
An Old Midrashic Tale, re-told by Rabbi David Hartley Mark
When the Lord God revealed Himself to Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother, He commanded them to go out into the world and spread the faith. Abraham’s favorite mitzvah, or commandment/good deed, was that of Hachnasat Orchim—Welcoming Guests. He therefore built a tent which was open on all four compass-points, so that, when he and Sarah camped in the wilderness, he would be sure to spot any traveler. Then, he would rush forth, and offer them both shelter and hospitality.
So it happened, one day, that Abraham and Sarah were sitting in their cool tent in the heat of the day. And a lone desert traveler appeared, coming over the ridge, looking tired and thirsty. Abraham rushed to greet him:
“Come to my tent, Sir,” said Abraham, “and there, I will wash your feet from your long journey, and my wife and I will give you food and refreshment.”
“Thank you,” said the man, “I have been walking for a long distance in this desert, and could use a rest. I might have died, had you not rescued me.”
And the two returned to the tent, together. Abraham went and slew a tender young lamb, dressed it, and gave it to one of the men-servants to roast. Sarah baked matzos in a clay oven, and, while the man drank goats’-milk, Abraham told him stories of the One True God, Who made Heaven and Earth, and all that are in them.
And the man listened, and nodded politely. And then, they fell to their feast, eating the meat about one-half hour after drinking the milk, in fulfillment of the Laws of Keeping Kosher, even though these were not yet given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Go figure.
After the meal, as they sat back with full bellies, the man said, “Thank you for your hospitality, Friend Abraham.”
And Abraham smiled, and said, “You must not thank me. Instead, we must both give thanks and offer praise to my God, the One True God, Who is invisible, and Who made the lamb you enjoyed, the milk you drank, and all the food that we consumed. Is He not a remarkable God, indeed? Let us now pray to Him—“
And Abraham prepared to rise, and lifted his face to the Heavens, the abode of the Lord God Almighty.
But the man did not get up to join in the prayer.
Instead, he reached into his robe, and said, “By your leave, Friend Abraham, I will pray to my own god, and thank him for the meal, rather than yours.”
And the man (whose name was Ishbaal) withdrew a small wooden statue, as big as a child’s doll. It was smooth along its body, and had a wooden head with the nose mostly gone, and a wooden base that had once been level, but had been knocked askew, so it would not stand up straight and proper. But the man held it with much reverence, and patted and kissed it with much reverence.
“O my god, Baal, Lord of the Lightning, the Sun, and the Storms!” Ishbaal began, but Abraham reached out a hand, and stopped his prayer.
“What are you talking about, Friend Ishbaal?” he asked, and his tone was low and slow, but there was a slight undercurrent of anger and impatience at the doll-idol, “That—that—thing you have there, is no god. That thing is a—a stick of wood.”
“Excuse me,” said Ishbaal, looking hurt and insulted, “but I was kind enough, and polite, too, when you spoke—at great length, too, with all due respecth—about your God, and went on and on about how He created the heavens and the earth. An invisible God! Humph. No, indeed. I have prayed for all my life to this, little, sensible, fully portable god. He was a gift—my great-great-grandfather, also named Ishbaal, carved him, many years ago. And he passed him down, father-to-son, and now he is mine, since I was very small. And furthermore—“
“For God’s sake!” cried Abraham, “That is no god. That is a stick of wood! Toss it on the fire, and join me in worshiping the One True God. Now!”
“I will do no such thing!” said Ishbaal, rising, and facing Abraham, nose-to-nose, “for my god is a real god, made of his own trees that grow on his own earth. He reposes in heaven, and throws down the lightning, and causes the thunder to roll—“
“For the last time,” interrupted Abraham, “I ask you. You ate my meat. You drank my drink. And now, I ask—no, I command you—will you join me in the worship of the Lord God Almighty, who loves us all?”
“No,” said Ishbaal, “why should I? Baal commands me to worship him. And that’s what I will do. I have worshiped Baal, and he has protected me, since I was young—“
“Then, out, out!” screamed Abraham, “Out with you! I cannot abide having you beneath my roof! I rue that I ever gave you shelter or food! Out!”
“Gladly,” said the old man, and he gathered his small store of things, clutched his Baal-idol to his chest, and raced out into the dark desert night.
After his abrupt dismissal of his guest, Abraham, who was elderly himself, felt exhausted. He fell to his sleeping-mat and into a deep slumber. And he dreamed.
In his dream, he heard the Voice of God. And God spoke to him, saying, “Abraham, Abraham.”
And, also in the dream, Abraham answered, “I am here, my God! I am here. Did I not do well for You and Your honor today, in upholding the belief in You that I profess and follow with all my heart, when that stubborn old fool provoked me? Did I not act justly and correctly in my words and deeds?
And the Lord God, Who moves Heaven and Earth, said, “Um—well, Abraham—not exactly.”
And Abraham replied, “’Not exactly,’ O Lord God? Could you be more specific?”
And God said, “Well, Abraham, it’s like this—“
And Abraham said, “But God, he had an idol—a stick of wood—and he was praying to it! I was just correcting him—“
And God said, “Yes, well, that’s the thing….”
And Abraham said, “But I was upholding Your holiness, and glory, and righteousness, forever!”
And God said, “Yes, well, that’s all very nice, but that old man—what was his name, Ishbaal?—he is made in My image, too. And the way you treated him—“
And Abraham said, “But that stubborn old man refused to believe!”
And God said, “Will you let Me finish? Please, stop interrupting.”
And Abraham said, “Oh. Sorry. Sure. Go ahead.”
And God said, “Thank you. Now, just listen. Yes, it’s true that that old man has prayed to that little wooden doll for all of his life. But, in the meantime, he was trying to live as good and honest and decent a life as he could. And praying to that wooden doll wasn’t hurting anyone. Meanwhile, during all of those years, I was doing My part for him—protecting him and his family, making sure that they had food to eat, clothes to wear, looking out for them—all of those years.”
And Abraham said, “But that’s what I meant—shouldn’t he have been worshiping You?”
And God said, “Let me get to the point. I put up with that man’s praying to that idol for all of those years, because he was doing the best he could. All of those years—and you, Abraham, my good and faithful servant—you couldn’t tolerate him in your presence for just a few hours, or, at most, just one day?”
And Abraham said, “Oh. I get it. Um—yeah.”
And God said, “You blew it, Abraham. Big time. Sorry to have to tell you this, but it’s My job.”
And Abraham woke from his dream. He ordered torches lit, and he, his man-servants, and Sarah all went out, into the dark, desert night. They searched and searched, and found the old man, sleeping by a sand dune. And they did not rest, until they convinced him that he was right, and Abraham was wrong—that is, he should not have tried to force the old man to worship his God.
And they brought the old man, Ishbaal, back to their tent, and refreshed him, again. And he and Abraham and Sarah went on to become lifelong friends, and worshiped together, in an interfaith fashion.
And God was pleased, and He blessed Abraham, Sarah, and Ishbaal.
If they, why not we?