Avraham Avinu - Iconoclast Par Excellence! by Ephraim Helfgot


Most children in Yeshiva learn the Parashah of Lech Lecha in the third grade or thereabouts, and almost all are taught a famous Midrashic narrative about Avraham’s background. This Midrash, found in BeReishit Rabbah (38:13), recounts:

          Avraham’s father, Terach, owned an idol shop. When customers would come by, Avraham would embarrass them by asking them why an adult should worship something made just the day before. One day, Avraham was working alone in the store when a woman came to offer a plate of flour to the idols. Once she left, Avraham took a club, smashed the idols, and placed the club in the hand of the biggest one. When Terach returned and asked why the idols were destroyed, Avraham replied, “They were arguing over who would eat from the flour first; the biggest one thereupon broke all the others with this club.” Terach protested that the inanimate idols could not perform such an action; Avraham then argued that, if they were incapable of fighting for themselves, surely idols could not protect people. 

Terach, unconvinced, brought Avraham to King Nimrod.

“Let us worship fire,” Nimrod said.

“If so, let us worship water, which puts out fire,” was Avraham’s response.

“Fine, let us worship water,” said Nimrod.

“If so, let us worship the clouds, which carry water,” was Avraham’s response.

“Fine, let us worship the clouds,” said Nimrod.

“If so, let us worship the wind, which scatters the clouds,” was Avraham’s response.

“Fine, let us worship the wind” said Nimrod.

“If so, let us worship man, who can stand in the wind,” was Avraham’s response.

“You are just playing words games,” Nimrod finally said. “Instead, I’ll throw you into the fire, which I worship; we’ll see if your G-d saves you.”

          Avraham was then cast into a fiery furnace and miraculously saved by Hashem. Haran, Avraham’s brother, saw this and decided to follow Avraham’s belief in an incorporeal, metaphysical G-d; however, his faith was insincere, and when Nimrod had him thrown into the furnace, Haran died.

          The ostensible impetus for Chazal’s creation of this narrative was the early death of Haran (BeReishit 11:28), and indeed, this is the source that is quoted at the start of the Midrash. However, a deeper analysis of the qualities of Avraham expressed in this story reveals that, beyond adding detail to Haran’s death, this Midrash is intended to express all of the traits which define Avraham in the Torah.

          In the words of my father, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, the Midrash tells us that Avraham Avinu is an iconoclast -- both in the sense of the original Greek (icon, meaning idol and clast, meaning to destroy) and in that of the modern meaning that we give this word. Firstly, we see Avraham’s strong moral compass; he intrinsically knows that idolatry is wrong. This flows into his second defining trait, that of action: Avraham cannot passively stand by when the situation needs to be fixed. As the narrative of the Midrash continues, Avraham engages Nimrod in a theological Socratic seminar of sorts, acting in the role of a teacher despite being a subject before his king, the would-be student. Just as Avraham Avinu must act when there is evil in the world, he must teach when there is folly in the minds of men, no matter the consequences. This imperative to educate others is Avraham’s third characteristic. Avraham’s fourth and final trait is what allows him to act and teach no matter the dangers: his unshakable faith in, and devotion to, G-d. These four traits can be found throughout the different stories of Avraham’s life recounted in the Torah. 

          Avraham’s two greatest tests in life-- his childlessness and Akeidat Yitzchak-- both showcase his fidelity to Hashem. Regarding G-d’s promise that Avraham, an old man, would have a child, the Torah writes, “And he believed in G-d” (BeReishit 15:6), while the angel who stops Avraham from offering his son as an offering states, “For now I know that you are one who reveres G-d” (ibid. 22:12). 

          Avraham’s educational efforts, while not expressed explicitly in the Pesukim, are alluded to in many places. When Avraham and Sarah left Charan, they took with them “the souls which they made;” (ibid. 12:5) as slaves were already included earlier in the Pasuk, Rashi, Onkelos, and Targum Yerushalmi on the Pasuk all take this as a reference to converts which Avraham and Sarah had amassed. The Ramban (12:8 s.v. VaYikra BeShem Hashem) also interprets Avraham’s “calling out in the Name of G-d” (ibid. 12:8) at the Mizbei’ach that he built in Ai as a reference to teaching about G-d. The closest corroboration of Avraham Avinu's educational outreach to strangers mentioned in the Torah itself is the statement of the Bnei Cheit, natives of the land of Kena'an, who recognize Avraham as "a prince of G-d of among us" (BeReishit 23:6). This is evidence that Avraham had indeed taught the people of Kena'an about Hashem and that his message was well-received.

          Avraham’s moral sense and tendency toward action are usually found together, as the first leads to the second. When Lot is captured by the armies of five kings, Avraham senses his obligation to save his nephew and quickly chases his enemy at the head of a small strike force (ibid. 14:14). Similarly, Avraham cannot abide the fact that his shepherds and those of Lot are quarreling (ibid. 13:8); to solve this problem, he proposes a proactive solution of separating in two directions.

          We see, then, that all of the traits which this Midrash ascribes to Avraham are well rooted in the Torah. Indeed, the Torah comes close to writing a summary of Avraham’s legacy with G-d’s description of him (ibid. 18:19): “Ki Yedativ, Lema’an Asher Yetzaveh Et Banav V’et Beito Acharav LiShmor Et Derech Hashem VeLa’asot Tzedakah U’Mishpat”, “For I know him, that he will command (trait of teaching) his children and household after him to keep the way of G-d (trait of faith), to do (trait of action) righteousness and justice (trait of morality) in the land.” May we all leave such a legacy in this world.

Ur Casdim vs. Charan: Where Did Avram Live? by Tani Greengart

Echad Hayah Avraham by Rabbi Michael Hoenig