Imparting Wisdom Through Story
Abraham and the Old Man
by Carrie Sue Ayvar
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I spent every summer from the time I was a year old until I went away to college at my maternal grandparent’s house in North Miami Beach, Florida. The average tourist from the Northeast comes to South Florida for the winter rather than the summer, but my family has rarely been “typical.”
My siblings and I would stay for three months with my Grandpa Nat & Grandma Selma while my parents worked long summer hours running their store. It is a small, two-bedroom house, but there was always room for one more at the table or a little floor space and a blanket if someone needed a place to stay.
My grandparents had both emigrated as children from Polish/Russian shtetls, small villages, fleeing harsh pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. They had to leave behind their homes and businesses, their Houses of Study and Synagogues, much of their material goods, and even many of their family members and friends. However, my grandparents reminded me that even in the extremely overcrowded and cramped, stinking spaces of those steerage compartments there was always room for one essential possession – their stories; stories of who they were, where they came from, and how they hoped to live their lives.
Grandpa Nat was a master storyteller. Like his father and grandfather, he was a Talmudic scholar, as well as a businessman. He would spend hours reviewing and discussing Jewish law and rabbinic opinions and always seemed to have a story to illuminate each varied and often seemingly contradictory opinion. He told stories to me and my siblings and every child in the neighborhood. He told stories when friends came to visit and play pinochle or to share a delicious nosh my Grandma Selma had prepared. She also told stories – every night she would ask us at bedtime, “What country would you like to visit tonight?” She would tell us folktales from around the world and taught me that you can “travel” through a story without need of a visa or passport.
Grandpa Nat, on the other hand, told stories throughout the day. And he always seemed to have just the right one. If I was sad, he would have a story to make me laugh. If the children were arguing he would have a story about getting along. Bored? There were puzzle and riddle stories that kept us discussing and debating for hours! His stories entertained, illuminated, and made us think. Little did I realize it at the time, but those stories were also informing my world view and would stay with me.
When I was about eight or nine years old Grandpa Nat told a story I never forgot. I only heard it once, but it was one I have thought about often. It took root in my soul and changed how I viewed myself, my beliefs, and those who see things differently from me. It took me over 25 years, but I finally found written versions.
Abraham, Ibrahim, Abram, however you may call him, is revered and respected as the patriarch of three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. He and his wife Sarah were known for their hospitality. It is said that their tent was open on all sides so that Abraham could see visitors approaching from any direction and go to welcome them.
It happened that one time, as Abraham sat in the doorway he saw, off in the distance, an old man, stooped with age and leaning wearily on a staff as he crossed the desert. Without hesitation or delay, Abraham arose and went to greet the stranger, warmly welcoming and inviting the man into his home. As was his custom, Abraham washed the old man’s feet and offered him food and drink and ensured he was made comfortable.
After they ate the man thanked his host, but Abraham suggested that they should instead thank God for the food, drink, and shelter, and the old man readily agreed. “Yes, indeed,” he said, “Let us give thanks for these blessings. I am most grateful.” And having said this the man pulled out from his pack an aged, worn, carved wooden idol and began to bow down and pray and give thanks to it.
At this, Abraham immediately began to refute the old man’s actions, telling him that the idol was nothing but a piece of wood made by man and had no power to provide the food, drink or shelter. “It came from My God, the One True God, and it is to him that we should be thanking and worshipping,” directed Abraham. “No,” answered the old man. “I have prayed to this God since I was a young boy and always has he provided for me. Even now, have not my Gods led me here, through the desert, and yet again provided me with sustenance? No, this has served me well my whole long life and I will not change my Gods now.” Abraham tried to instruct and persuade the old man, but nothing would change his mind.
Finally, stammering and stuttering with anger and impatience, Abraham told him, “Go! Leave my house! You are too stubborn to learn and unwilling to understand. You disrespect my God by refusing to acknowledge him, all the while enjoying His blessings that I have shared with you? No! Leave! Leave!” So the man repacked his wooden idol, picked up his staff, and left Abraham’s tent, setting out once again into the desert.
Abraham was angry and frustrated but also strong in his righteousness. He felt completely justified in his action – after all, the old man would not listen nor learn and disregarded all attempts to teach him. Such disdain and disrespect for the Creator could not be tolerated!
At last Abraham lay down, but he could not sleep. During the night, God spoke to Abraham. He asked, “Where is the old man, the stranger who sought shelter here this evening?” “Oh My God, Creator of the Universe, he was nothing but an idolater and refused to worship or thank you. I could not stand to have him here any longer and sent him away.” And God answered, “Who are you to judge this man? What do I care by what name he calls me? I have fed and clothed and cared for this man all the many years of his life and yet you could not tolerate him for even one night?”
And Abraham understood and was ashamed. He left his tent and searched until he found the old man, sincerely apologizing and begging his forgiveness. They returned together to Abraham and Sarah’s tent and when the man was ready to continue his journey he was sent on his way with gifts and respect.
I heard this story once as a child and yet it has stayed with me always. Such is the power of story. Stories connect us, uno al otro, one to another, bridging languages, religions, cultures, and experiences. Sometimes they allow us, for a moment, to walk in someone else’s shoes. Sometimes they allow us to see through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes they plant seeds of understanding and tolerance that may take years to fully bloom.
I now live in South Florida, in North Miami Beach, in the very home my grandparents built and where I first heard many of the stories I still share. I am reminded on a daily basis of the lessons for living I learned from them. Like my Grandpa Nat used to say, “If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories, you may be lost in life.”
Header Photo: Mobilus In Mobili, C.c. 2.0 sa