Abraham smashes the idols
Abraham was born and brought up in the magnificent city civilization of Babylon -- Iraq. This was the civilization that tried to produce the ultimate man-constructed "house", the Tower of Babel. It was supposed to reach to the very heavens, but then it collapsed and sank into the ground (Genesis 11). Abraham traveled widely throughout the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, where he had intimate dealings with the a court that viewed itself as the very last word in sophistication and saw fit to kidnap his wife for Pharaoh's pleasure (Genesis 12:14-20). The same happened when Abraham visited the Philistine kingdom of Gerar (ibid. 20:1-18). Abraham personally witnessed the awesome physical catastrophe that befell the decadent, degenerate city culture of the once lush, now barren, salty plain of Sodom just north of Israel's Yam Hamelach ("Dead" Sea) (ibid. chapters 18-19).
The technology in Abraham's time may have been primitive compared with what we have now. Yet the cultures of the time produced impressive buildings and artifacts, and people's practical know-how was often far greater than that of the majority in our automated civilization. The human social and cultural environment was no less elaborate than today's. People were surrounded by man-made objects and images just as we are today. Wise men and priests attained levels of astronomical, mathematical, botanical, pharmaceutical and other kinds of knowledge that would put many contemporary "experts" and "specialists" to shame. Their theological and philosophical systems appear to have been no less subtle and complex than any today.
Abraham rejected the entire belief system of his contemporaries, despite the fact that he himself came from the very cream of the elite. His father, Terach, was, according to tradition, favorite of the then most powerful man in the world, Nimrod. Today Nimrod would be called a tyrant or control freak or perhaps the first superman. The Bible says of Nimrod: "He began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before God, which is why it is said: Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before God" (Genesis 10:8-9) The classic Bible commentator Rashi explains: "He ensnared the minds of people with his talk and deceived them into rebelling against God" (Rashi ad loc.)
Nimrod's line was that man is entitled to do whatever he pleases. This was a philosophy that gave especially wide scope to Nimrod himself since he himself was the biggest strongman. No one would dare do anything against his whims and desires. I.e. Nimrod is god!
It appears that by nature Abraham too was always looking to where the power lies. (The Divine name associated with Abraham's spiritual quality of Chessed, Love and Kindness, is EL, which literally signifies Power.) But from his earliest childhood, Abraham had the sense to realize that ultimate power cannot possibly lie in a mere human being, no matter how strong and influential, since he is here today and dead tomorrow.
From the time of Abraham's first spiritual awakening he searched tirelessly to discover the true source of the various manifestations of power and strength found in the world. A famous Midrash shared by Judaism and other traditions depicts Abraham as a little infant abandoned in a cave by his parents. They were afraid that Nimrod would kill their little child since Nimrod's astrologers had told him a baby had been born who was destined to shine to the entire world.
|Abraham cried and cried because he was so hungry. God sent the angel Gabriel, who gave him milk to drink until Abraham grew and was three years old. One night he decided to leave the cave. When he went out, the world was dark. He looked up at the skies and saw the twinkling stars. He was amazed by so many millions of little lights. He said, "These must certainly be the most powerful forces in the whole universe. These must be the gods."
But then came the dawn and the stars disappeared. "No," said Abraham, "those little lights can't be gods because they have disappeared. Something else has outshone them. I won't worship them any more."
Then the sun rose and shone in all its glory. Abraham said, "This is the most powerful force. This is God. I will worship this." But towards evening, as the sun set, Abraham understood that the sun is also not God. Out of the darkness, the moon rose and shone its light, and Abraham thought: "Yes, this time I have found God".
At that moment the Angel Gabriel came down and took Abraham to a fountain of pure water. "Immerse and purify yourself," said the Angel. Afterwards the Angel revealed to him that HaVaYaH, the One God, holds power and dominion over the Heavens above and the Earth below. God created the entire world." When Abraham heard the words of the angel, he prostrated and prayed to HaVaYaH, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
Abraham understood that a subordinate power has no option but to submit to a higher power. What he sought all his life was the highest Power of all -- in the knowledge that if he could discover the secret of ultimate power, he himself would be able to channel it and wield it for good.
Abraham understood that people's worship of the stars and planets and other subordinate powers was actually a guise for worshipping themselves, i.e. endeavoring to gratify their own selfish appetites for wealth, sex, food, drink, power, honor, etc. Even when people bow down to and "serve" gods of prosperity, love, war and the like, they are actually trying to abandon themselves to deep instinctual desires for personal gratification. [The veneration displayed by many today for the products of contemporary technology and the energy devoted to their acquisition may also be viewed as a form of idolatrous service of the self. Why do those same people not put similar energy into venerating and serving HaVaYaH, ultimate Source all the resources upon which human life depends?]
The world-famous story about Abraham's breaking the idols shows the wit and wisdom with which he exposed man's folly and self-deception when he worships idols and other products of his own activity.
Abraham's father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop. People would come in and ask to buy idols. Abraham would say, "How old are you?" The person would say, "Fifty," or "Sixty". Abraham would say, "Isn't it pathetic that a man of sixty wants to bow down to a one-day-old idol?" The man would feel ashamed and leave.
One time a woman came with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, "Take this and offer it to the gods".
Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.
When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. "Who did this?" he cried. "How can I hide anything from you?" replied Abraham calmly. "A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, "I'm going to eat first." Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces."
"What are you trying to pull on me?" asked Terach, "Do they have minds?"
Said Abraham: "Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?"
(Midrash Bereishit 38:13)
Calling Terach an idol-manufacturer suggests that he was a major ideologist and opinion-molder in the society in which he lived. When Abraham would ask how a person of sixty could bow down to a newly-made idol, he was pointing out that if you are searching for the ultimate power, it's no use looking at ephemeral, man-made objects, no matter how impressive. Items constructed today to satisfy some whim or fancy will be abandoned or destroyed tomorrow.
Abraham was saying: Why do you worship modernity just because it glitters and glisters temporarily. If you really want to find the source of power, you must work backwards to the cause of the cause of the cause... To find the source of creation you have to go back in time. Far, far back: years and years. Thousands and thousands and millions and millions of years.[Rebbe Nachman often quoted a popular song that included the words "The old, old, old, old God" -- Tzaddik #413).
The women coming with her basket of bread for the gods was expressing a profound human need to pacify and please the higher power.
If Abraham refused to offer the bread, it was not because he did not believe in the principle of sacrifice. When the time came for him to worship the One God, he sacrificed his very self. He was prepared to offer up his precious, most beloved son, Isaac. But only to the true God, never to some subordinate power that is itself dependent upon a higher power.
Abraham's comic trick of putting the hammer in the hands of the biggest idol and telling his father how each of the idols wanted to eat first lays bare the selfish desire for personal gratification that lies at the root of most idolatry. The woman brought the offering of bread in the hope that this would placate the gods so they would provide food for her to eat. Feeling vulnerable herself, she tried to pacify the powers she felt to be above her. But Abraham showed that her gods were as self-centered and greedy as she was.
The essence of Abraham's later teaching was that the foundation of true religion and spirituality is to practice the reverse of selfishness and personal gratification -- i.e. kindness and charity. HaVaYaH, as the supreme Power over all other powers, can afford to show love and kindness to all. When man overcomes his own instinctive selfishness and cultivates these divine traits, he himself experiences and becomes connected with God.
This teaching of kindness and altruism was a direct contradiction to the philosophy and outlook of the ruling tyrant, Nimrod, who was the epitome of self-seeking. Nimrod's god was Fire, the power that consumes and destroys everything.
The same Midrash continues:
Nimrod called Abraham and commanded him to worship Fire.
Abraham said to him, "So let's worship water since water has the power to extinguish fire."
"Right," said Nimrod, "We should worship water."
"In that case, we should worship the clouds, since they carry water."
"Yes, we should worship the clouds."
"Then we should worship the wind, since it drives the clouds across the sky."
"Yes, we should worship the wind (ru'ach) -- air, spirit."
"But," said Abraham, "humans have the power to rule over the spirit. Should we worship human beings?"
"You're playing with words," cried Nimrod. "I worship only fire, and I am going to throw you into a huge furnace. Let the God you worship come along and save you from it!"
(Midrash Bereishit ibid.)
Abraham took Nimrod step by step through the fundamental elements of creation as seen in most pre-modern thought systems: Fire, Water and Air, all of which are expressed in and through the Earth element. (See later segments of this course for fuller discussion.) Fire is indeed a most powerful force. Yet water (the element with which Abraham is particularly associated) has the power to extinguish fire. Water -- flowing humbly from the heights of mountains ever downwards, soaking into the earth, vitalizing dry seeds, causing vegetation to sprout, giving life to fish, animals, birds and all other creatures -- expresses the unstinting, ever-flowing kindness and love of Abraham. This indeed is more powerful than the fire of Nimrod's selfish cravings.
Abraham's relentless logic brought Nimrod to the brink of having to admit that man can indeed control his own spirit and instincts. If he fails to control himself and surrenders to the fire of his lower instincts, then his "religion" is basically about self-worship. Nimrod's veneration of fire was merely an expression of his own burning passion to consume and destroy.
The insight was one Nimrod could not accept, and he decided to throw Abraham to his god of fire.
Nimrod gave orders to construct an enormous furnace into which Abraham was then catapulted. But God miraculously saved Abraham from the furnace.
The Midrash concludes that all the burning logs turned into blossoming trees that produced beautiful fruits. Man can consume and destroy, but God alone has the power to create life and bring about growth and regeneration.
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