Jew of the Week: Abraham

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by Gustav Doré

Avraham ben Terach (c. 1813 BCE-1638 BCE) was born in the Sumerian city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq). His father Terach was a wealthy idol merchant, and a minister to the king. According to legend, Abraham’s birth was predicted by the king’s soothsayers, who warned that it would be a bad sign for the monarch. Terach was thus ordered to eliminate the newborn, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, instead abandoning the child in a cave where he was protected and nurtured by an angel until Terach could safely bring him back home. By the age of 3, the young Abraham began to question the idolatrous and immoral society he was born into. Soon enough he had come to the conclusion that there must be one God, and man must strive to be righteous and draw closer to his Maker. By 52, Abraham had gained quite a following, and was a thorn in the side of both the king, and his own idolatrous father. He was put on trial and sentenced to death by fire. It was only at this point that God first revealed himself to Abraham, and miraculously saved him from the flames. Abraham went on to live in Haran (modern-day Syria), where he and his wife Sarah continued to spread the new faith, before permanently settling in the Holy Land. Abraham would become a wealthy and famous shepherd, as well as a popular astrologer, philosopher, and holy man. Rulers and sages from around the world would seek his council. He was undoubtedly most famous for his hospitality, constructing an entryway on each side of his house to make it easy for guests to find him, and providing free meals and lodging for all who were willing to listen to his message. Although naturally a pacifist, Abraham participated in his fair share of battles, including a regional war that engulfed nine different kingdoms, which he ultimately put an end to. It was with him that God first established an everlasting covenant, and promised that his descendants would be innumerable. This is the meaning of his name (“father of multitudes”) and indeed, today some two-thirds of the world’s population claim some form of descent from Abraham, whether biologically or spiritually. The place where he “elevated” his son Isaac would later become the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest point in Judaism. Abraham is considered the first Jew, and is often attributed with being history’s first monotheist. While there were other monotheists before him, Abraham was certainly the first to spread monotheism widely and combat idolatry head-on. It is said that he wrote a 400-chapter book debunking various idolatrous beliefs and proving that God is One. To him is also attributed the mystical Sefer Yetzirah, “Book of Formation”. He is Judaism’s first forefather, and the start of the chain that climaxed six generations later with Moses and the Israelites being saved from Egypt and receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai. According to one tradition, Abraham was born and passed away on Rosh Hashanah.

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We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
– Anonymous

Jew of the Week: Yuri Milner

Yuri Bentsionovich Milner (b. 1961) was born in Moscow. He studied theoretical physics at Moscow State University before working at the prestigious Lebedev Physical Institute. He found that his abilities in physics were not the best (especially because he was placed on a lower track due to his being Jewish), and decided to switch to business. He first tried selling computers, then went to do an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania, becoming the first person from the Soviet Union to officially study in the US. Upon graduation, he got a job at the World Bank, and in 1995 was made CEO of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s investment company. In 1999, Milner read an article and decided it was a good idea to start an online business. He began a series of ventures that brought American-style sites to Russia, including Molotok.ru (the Russian eBay), Boom.ru (free webhosting), and 24×7 (Russia’s Amazon). In 2005, Milner established his own investment fund, Digital Sky Technologies. Five years later, his Mail.ru went public on the London Stock Exchange with a valuation of $5.6 billion. That same year, Milner bought pioneering Israeli instant messaging company ICQ, and has since invested an additional $150 million in Israeli startups. Milner’s venture capital fund has become one of the world’s greatest. He was among the first to invest in Facebook, with an initial $200 million, and plenty more since. He also invested $800 million in Twitter, $125 million in WhatsApp, and $1.6 billion in Alibaba, in addition to Groupon, Snapchat, Airbnb, and Spotify. In 2012, Milner established the Breakthrough Prize, awarding $3 million to great achievements in Physics, Life Sciences, and Mathematics. This is now the largest scientific award in the world, trumping even the Nobel Prize. In 2015, Milner founded the Breakthrough Initiatives to investigate life on other planets. Its first project is a $100 million, 10-year endeavour called “Listen”, searching for radio and laser signals from distant stars with the most sensitive equipment in the world. The most recent Breakthrough Initiative is “Starshot”, investing $100 million to develop a spacecraft that will be accelerated to 20% of the speed of light and take a 20 year journey to our nearest star. Milner also awards (together with Mark Zuckerberg) a $250,000 scholarship to the winner of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, in addition to $50,000 for that student’s science teacher, and $100,000 for the student’s school science lab. Milner has been on Fortune‘s list of 50 Greatest World Leaders, and TIME’s 100 Most Influential People. He was voted Russia’s Businessman of the Year in 2010, and Man of the Year in 2011, and has been described as “the most interesting man in the world”. Milner recently purchased a house in Los Altos for $100 million, the most ever paid for a single-family home in US history (which the modest Milner was quite embarrassed about). He regularly attends the local synagogue. Milner made the news once again a couple of weeks ago when his Breakthrough Listen project discovered mysterious radio bursts from a distant galaxy, sparking whispers of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

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Words of the Week

An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions, atheism is very stupid.
– Carl Sagan