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Avraham, Breaker of Idols

Rav Michael Hattin
21.09.2014

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Parashat Lekh Lekha introduces us to perhaps the greatest odyssey of faith that our tradition recognizes.  With Adam and Chava now a distant memory and Noach's deliverance a fading image, the Torah embarks onto the next stage of human history.  "There are ten generations from Adam to Noach and ten generations from Noach to Avraham" state the Sages in Mishna Avot (5:3), cognizant of the respective genealogies listed at the ends of Parashat Bereishit and Parashat Noach.  Each of these periods, of course, represents an epoch in human development.  With Avraham's entry onto the arena of history, the world is to be irrevocably and unrecognizably altered. 

 

"Get thee out of thy land and thy birthplace and thy father's home, to the land which I will show you" intones the One True God, in solemn words redolent with promise.  "And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you, and I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.  And I shall bless those that bless you and curse the one who curses you, and all of the nations of the earth shall be blessed on your account." So sudden is this pronouncement and so unexpected that we are forced to ponder the events which precipitate it, as recorded at the end of Parashat Noach: 

 

"Terach had lived for seventy years when he begat Avram, Nachor and Haran.  These are the descendants of Terach: Terach begat Avram, Nachor and Haran, and Haran begat Lot.  Haran died during his father Terach's lifetime, in the land of his birth in Ur Kasdim.  Avram and Nachor took wives for themselves.  Avram's wife was named Sarai, and Nachor's wife was named Milka, the daughter of Haran who was the father of Milka and Yiska.  Sarai was barren and had no children."

 

Who is Avram and why does God choose him and his descendants to be the vehicle of His revelation in the world?  The textual details concerning Avram's early life seem too scant to convincingly construct a meaningful profile.  We are told nothing of his upbringing and family life, his significant interactions with others or his relationship with God.  The biographical details of his marriage to Sarai certainly foreshadow later events but seem unrelated to the journey about to unfold.  Only his birthplace is spelled out, the city of Ur, a prosperous and culturally advanced capital located on the lower reaches of the Euphrates River.

 

"Terach took Avram his son, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai who was Avram's wife.  They left with them from Ur Kasdim to journey to the land of Canaan, but having reached Charan they remained there.  Terach lived to be two hundred and five, and died in Charan."

 

No consequential facts seem to emerge from these final verses of Parashat Noach.  The circumstances surrounding the trek from Ur to Canaan are cryptically concealed.  It is true that the route of the journey can be reliably retraced, with the nuclear clan no doubt travelling northwest along the settled length of the Euphrates River, traversing the lower eastern arc of the geographical area known as the Fertile Crescent.  The causes for the move, though, remain obscured.  Disappointingly, the expedition comes to an abrupt end in Charan and there Terach perishes, far from his destination.

 

Thus does the Torah introduce us to Avraham, the Patriarch of our people.  It is an introduction both brief as well as mysterious.  Noach, in contrast, is presented with much greater detail:  "These are the generations of Noach.  Noach was a righteous man, without blemish in his generations.  Noach walked with God."  The fact that Noach is singled out to fulfill God's purpose and to be saved from the Flood is comprehensible in the light of such a description.  But the spartan sketch of Avraham which precedes his odyssey seems hardly sufficient to justify the lavish and loving attention that God bestows upon him. 

 

The Ramban (13th century, Spain) casts our query in sharp relief: 

 

"This section of the Torah has not adequately explained the issue.  Why should God tell Avraham 'leave your land and I will extend to you the greatest good that has ever been' without first indicating to us that Avraham was a servant of God or a perfectly righteous individual?  Or the text should state a reason for God's injunction to Avraham to leave his land, namely that he will achieve closeness to God in the new location.  The convention of the Torah is to state 'walk before Me, hearken to My voice and I will reward you' as we find by David and Solomon.  This in fact is the pattern throughout the Torah.  'If you will follow My statutes...then I will provide the rains in their due season" (Vayikra 26:3),  "if you will surely hearken to My voice... then God will elevate you above all of the other nations of the earth" (Devarim 28:1).  Concerning Isaac it states "on account of Avraham my servant (Bereishit 26:24)."  But to promise Avraham such reward solely on account of his leaving his land makes no sense."

 

AVRAM'S EARLY LIFE

 

Following the lead of the Ramban, we must search for an account of Avraham's earlier life.  Only by exploring the events of Avraham's childhood, youth, and maturation into adulthood shall we be able to appreciate why he is rightly regarded as the founder of our people.  But how shall we conduct such a search?  The text of the Torah seems to be silent on this topic.  Perhaps by reading between the lines, by carefully considering the significance of the meager details that are recorded in the Torah, we will be able to reconstruct the omitted material.

 

"Terach had lived for seventy years when he begat Avram, Nachor and Haran.  These are the descendants of Terach: Terach begat Avram, Nachor and Haran, and Haran begat Lot.  Haran died during his father Terach's lifetime, in the land of his birth in Ur Kasdim.  Avram and Nachor took wives for themselves.  Avram's wife was named Sarai, and Nachor's wife was named Milka, the daughter of Haran who was the father of Milka and Yiska.  Sarai was barren and had no children.

 

Terach took Avram his son, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai who was Avram's wife.  They left with them from Ur Kasdim to journey to the land of Canaan, but having reached Charan they remained there.  Terach lived to be two hundred and five, and died in Charan."

 

Clearly, the focus of these verses is not Avram at all, but rather his father Terach.  It is Terach's life that is here summarized.  His fatherhood is recorded, the untimely death of one of his children is recounted, and the marriage of his other sons is outlined.  It is Terach who initiates the journey to Canaan, and it is Terach's death in Charan that concludes the passage.  In almost all respects, the structure of this passage is no different than that of any of the other genealogies here recorded.  They too speak of so-and-so becoming a father to so-and-so at such-and-such an age, and later begetting more sons and daughters.  There are, however, two details that are unconventional for the context, and these perhaps are the key to advancing our investigation.

 

First of all, only in the account of Terach's life are place names mentioned.  The birthplace of none of the other descendants of Noach engages the Torah's attention.  Where they were born, lived, or left is apparently inconsequential.  Only here do we learn that the family of Avram hailed from the city of Ur and left that place to travel westward to Canaan, eventually arriving in Charan.

 

Secondly, of all of the generations mentioned at the end of Parashat Noach, only in the case of Terach is his death recorded.  In contrast, "These are the generations of Shem.  Shem was a hundred years old when he begat Arpachshad, two years after the flood.  Shem lived for five hundred years after the birth of Arpachshad, and begat sons and daughters.  Arpachshad lived thirty five years and begat Shelach.  Arpachshad lived for four hundred and three years after the birth of Shelach, and begat sons and daughters..."

 

 

THE MIDRASHIC ACCOUNT

 

To further probe the significance of these details, we must now direct our attention to another source.  For many people, this source is not to be taken seriously, for it couches its truths in expressions and tales that appear to be simplistic, elementary and puerile.  This attitude is understandable (though inexcusable), because for many of us, rudimentary childhood exposure to a few fragments of this source constitutes our only study of its contents!

 

I am of course referring to the Midrash, a general term that is colloquially used to describe a vast corpus of homiletic material preserved in various collections, and for the most part committed to writing between the 5th and 11th centuries.  It should be noted that the Midrash is the repository for an immense amount of much earlier traditions and explanations of the text.  These traditions had been transmitted orally over the generations until it became necessary, due to the exigencies of the time, to record them in written form.  Some of these traditions are very ancient and constitute authentic truths handed down to Moshe at Sinai.  I am convinced that certain Midrashim describing Avram's early life reflect (albeit in fanciful terms) just such hoary truths, for the later classical commentaries adopt them, explicate them and elaborate upon them, but never reject them.  Let us turn our attention to what is probably the most well-known Midrash associated with Avram, and attempt to extract its deep and profound message which is stated in straightforward terms that even a child could appreciate.

 

R. Chiyya the grandson of R. Adda of Jaffa explained: Terach was a manufacturer of idols.  He once went away somewhere and left Avram to sell them in his stead.  A man came and wished to buy one.  "How old are you?" Avram asked him.  "Fifty or sixty" was the reply.  "Woe to such a man" exclaimed Avram, "You are sixty years old and yet would worship a day-old object?!"  The man became ashamed and left.

 

On another occasion, a woman came with a plate full of fine flour and requested "Take this and offer it to them."  Avram took a stick in his hand and smashed all of the idols, and put the stick in the hands of the largest.  When his father returned, he demanded "Who did this to them?" Avram responded, "I cannot conceal it from you.  A woman came with a plate full of fine flour and requested me to offer it to them.  One of them exclaimed 'I must eat first!' while another exclaimed 'I must eat first!'  Thereupon, the largest arose, took the stick and broke the others."  "Why do you make sport of me," Terach cried out, "have they any knowledge?"  Avram retorted, "If only your ears would listen to what your mouth is saying!"

 

Thereupon, Terach seized his son and delivered him to Nimrod.  "Let us worship the fire!" proposed Nimrod.  "Let us rather worship the water which extinguishes fire," replied Avram.  "Then let us worship water!"  "Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water," replied Avram.  "Then let us worship the clouds!"  "Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds," replied Avram.  "Then let us worship the winds!"  "Let us rather worship human beings who withstand the wind," replied Avram.  "You are just bandying words," said Nimrod, "I worship only the fire, and will cast you into it.  Let the God in whom you believe save you from its effects!... Avram was cast into the fiery furnace and emerged unscathed...(Bereishit Rabba 38:13).

 

This account can be conveniently divided into two sections.  The first describes Avram's relationship with his father, and the second tells of his hostile confrontation with the proverbial Nimrod, ruler of Ur.  Terach, we are told, is a purveyor of idols.  He is not simply another anonymous inhabitant of Ur, a peddler of vegetables or earthenware pots, a government bureaucrat or a craftsman, a wagon driver or a porter.  Rather, he is a salesman of statues, and a provider of gods.  In other words, Terach is no outsider to the polytheistic culture of Ur. Rather, he is happily attracted to its blandishments and intimately connected to its service.  Or, to employ the language of the aging Yehoshua as he surveys early Jewish history in a passage which has been incorporated into the Haggada recited at  the Seder: "Thus says Hashem God of Israel: Your ancestors dwelt on the banks of the Euphrates from time immemorial, Terach the father of Avraham and the father of Nachor, and they served other gods..." (Yehoshua 24:2)

 

Avram, therefore, is raised as an idolater in a household devoted to idolatry.  His father and his grandfather before him have willingly and conscientiously imbibed the values of their birthplace.  They have adopted a world view much concerned with the tangible, the temporal and the sensual, and hopelessly ignorant of the spiritual, the eternal and the Absolute.  And they have attempted to transmit that way of life to their children.  Thus, in his father's absence, Avram is appointed by Terach to take his place as a proud and upstanding idol vendor. 

 

Avram, however, has different plans.  Seizing on the opportunity of being put in charge of the shop, Avram proceeds to put a dent in the idol sales volume by engaging potential customers in less-than-salesman-like conversation.  This facet of the Midrash reveals further details.  Quite early in life, it seems, Avram has started to question the accepted norms of his society.  While yet a child or young lad, he has already embarked on a journey of inquiry which will eventually lead him to reject his father's and his city's faith and way of life.  But that inquiry is essentially driven by rational considerations.  It is illogical for a grown man to worship a day-old object.  In other words, polytheism is false because it cannot provide a reasonable explanation for existence.

 

Avram's new ideas create conflicts.  No longer able to abide by his father's beliefs, Avram translates into action the conceptual break with his family and the society around him by smashing the idols.  He is the first iconoclast (breaker of idols) in human history and in so doing, unleashes a process that will change forever the way that enlightened human beings apprehend the world and their place in it.  Terach is nonplussed by these new ideas and appeals to a higher authority to intervene.

 

The second section of the Midrash describes the exchange that takes place between Avram and Nimrod, King of Ur.  Although the Torah itself does not link Nimrod to Ur, the Midrash chooses to do so, for Nimrod is an archetype of that most unsavory of characters, the tyrant (see Bereishit 10:8-12).  Avram's revolution of faith represents a danger to Nimrod's established and entrenched rule, which is predicated on his claim to absolute authority.  

 

Thus, the two debate the natural forces (fire, water, clouds, wind) whose capricious and often potentially destructive whims were cultivated by every polytheistic society in the hopes of securing their favor.  Avram, however, unexpectedly redirects the discussion.  He intimates to Nimrod that the absolute rule of a human being over his brethren ("let us then worship the human being who withstands the clouds...") is only possible in a system that recognizes no Higher Absolute Authority whose law is binding on king and serf alike.  It is no wonder that Nimrod, clearly perceiving that monotheism spells the end of totalitarianism, wisely decides to dispense with Avram before his revolution can take hold among the subjects of Ur.  Though cast into the fiery furnace (hence 'Ur' or fire), Avram miraculously survives.  This is an indication of the great ideological conflagration that Avram ignites with his views, as well as of his narrow and providential escape from the grips of the ruling class.

 

 

REEVALUATING THE TEXT

 

Returning to the text of the Torah, we are now in a position to appreciate its terse but allusive words.  The introductory verses to Avram's journey focus on Terach, because Terach and his birthplace of Ur form the background to all of Avram's subsequent accomplishments.  Terach and Ur are inseparable entities, for both the man and his city are bound up in the same idolatrous belief system that almost by definition cannot reject an unjust social order.  After all, only in the presence of an Absolute Deity is an Absolute Morality possible. 

 

In Charan, Terach dies (though not for some time after Avram leaves for Canaan.  See Bereishit 11:32 and Rashi) and with him dies the spirit of Ur.  Avram's journey to Canaan alone, represents his complete and irreparable rift with the past - with his society, his family and even his own father.  Only against the background of that break, and cognizant of the awesome emotional and spiritual fortitude necessary to carry it out, can we begin to understand God's 'unexpected' choice of Avram as His own: "Get thee out of thy land and thy birthplace and thy father's home, to the land which I will show you.  And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you, and I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.  And I shall bless those that bless you and curse the one who curses you, and all of the nations of the earth shall be blessed on your account."

 

For further study: see Rambam's masterful and inspiring adaptation of the Midrash in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry Chapter 1, and compare to Ramban's commentary on Bereishit 12:3.

 

Shabbat Shalom

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