Parshat Lech Lecha תש”פ
In this week’s portion, we are introduced to Avraham Avinu, Avraham our forefather.
רמב”ם הלכות עבודה זרה פרק א
א כיון שנגמל איתן זה התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן והתחיל לחשוב ביום ובלילה והיה תמיה היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד ולא יהיה לו מנהיג ומי יסבב אותו, כי אי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו, ולא היה לו מלמד ולא מודיע דבר אלא מושקע באור כשדים בין עובדי כוכבים הטפשים ואביו ואמו וכל העם עובדי כוכבים והוא עובד עמהם ולבו משוטט ומבין עד שהשיג דרך האמת והבין קו הצדק מתבונתו הנכונה, וידע שיש שם אלוה אחד והוא מנהיג הגלגל והוא ברא הכל ואין בכל הנמצא אלוה חוץ ממנו, וידע שכל העולם טועים ודבר שגרם להם לטעות זה שעובדים את הכוכבים ואת הצורות עד שאבד האמת מדעתם, ובן ארבעים שנה הכיר אברהם את בוראו
Once he was weaned, Avraham began to explore with his mind even as a small child. He would think day and night and wonder, “How is it possible that the celestial cycle works consistently day and night without anyone controlling it? It can’t possibly operate itself!” He had no teacher or anyone to share information with him; rather, he was engulfed in Ur Kasdim among all the silly idol worshippers. His mother, father, and the whole community served idols, and Avraham initially went along with them, but his heart was always seeking to understand. He came to the point where he understood the truth. He realized that there is one G-d that controls the whole system and that He created everything that exists and there is no G-d other than Him. He then realized that the entire world was making a mistake, and what caused them to err was their deep involvement in the worship of idols. Avraham was forty years old when his belief in HaShem was fully developed.
There is a well-known Midrash (Bereshit Rabah 38:13) that many of us heard as kids:
וימת הרן על פני תרח אביו רבי חייא בר בריה דרב אדא דיפו תרח עובד צלמים היה חד זמן נפיק לאתר הושיב לאברהם מוכר תחתיו הוה אתי בר אינש בעי דיזבן והוה א”ל בר כמה שנין את והוה א”ל בר חמשין או שיתין והוה א”ל ווי ליה לההוא גברא דהוה בר שיתין ובעי למסגד לבר יומי והוה מתבייש והולך לו חד זמן אתא חד איתתא טעינה בידה חדא פינך דסולת אמרה ליה הא לך קרב קודמיהון קם נסיב בוקלסא בידיה ותבריהון לכולהון פסיליא ויהב בוקלסא בידא דרבה דהוה ביניהון כיון דאתא אבוה א”ל מאן עביד להון כדין א”ל מה נכפר מינך אתת חדא איתתא טעינה לה חדא פינך דסולת ואמרת לי הא לך קריב קודמיהון קריבת לקדמיהון הוה דין אמר אנא איכול קדמאי ודין אמר אנא איכול קדמאי קם הדין רבה דהוה ביניהון נסב בוקלסא ותברינון א”ל מה אתה מפלה בי וידעין אינון א”ל ולא ישמעו אזניך מה שפיך אומר
Rabbi Chiya the grandson of Rabbi Ada from Yafo said, “Terach (Avraham’s father) was an idol salesman. Once, he left the store in Avraham’s hands to sell in his stead. A man entered to buy an idol. Avraham asked him, ’How old are you?’ He answered, ’Sixty years old.’ Avraham said to him, ’Aren’t you embarrassed to bow down to an idol that was made just yesterday?’ “
A woman came in with a bowl of flour and gave it to Avraham to present to the idols as an offering. Avraham took a hammer and broke all the idols except for the largest one. He then put the hammer in [the idol’s] hand and placed the bowl of flour in his lap. When Terach came home to find all the idols smashed to smithereens, he asked Avraham, “What happened?” Avraham responded, “I will not withhold the truth from you, father. A woman brought a bowl of flour as an offering to the idols, and they all started arguing, ‘I eat first! No, I eat first …’ Then, the biggest one took the hammer, smashed all the others and took the offering for himself, and there it is, in his lap!”
Terach became incensed and said, “Are you making fun of me? You know these idols don’t know anything that’s going on!!” “Father,” said Avraham, “listen to the words you just said!”
While this is a very entertaining Midrash, the question is, what is the lesson here?
Mr. Avi Shulman, noted author and lecturer, gave the following answer to this question.
When a person enters a haberdashery to purchase a tie for one of his suits, we easily understand the criteria that he will use to pick out the tie. He has a blue suit, so the color of the tie must complement that of the suit. He doesn’t want it to be too wild, but at the same time it should have some personality and not be too drab. It can’t be too long or too short, or too cheap or too expensive for his budget. After taking all of the above into consideration, he can be sure to come home with a tie for his suit that will give him many years of pleasure.
When one enters an idol store to purchase an idol, by what criteria does he chose his god? Is it love at first sight? “Oh look at that one! It is so handsome!?” Or, does it have to do with size or shape, skinny or fat? What’s the formula?
The answer is that idols came with rules of how to serve them. They each had their list of do’s and don’ts. So, let’s say, I love to smoke, but I do not like to drink alcohol, I would pick the idol whose rules say: Don’t you dare drink whiskey or any intoxicating beverages, but it’s okay to smoke as much as you please. On the other hand, the person who loves to drink but doesn’t have a need to smoke, picks the idol who says: “No problem drinking! Drink to your hearts content, but don’t you dare smoke!”
This is why people were so happy with their idols. They could do whatever they pleased as condoned by their god! What a great system, and how easy it is to be righteous! You need only find the god that sides with your inclinations, and you are set for life!
The Talmud in Tractate Berakhot says (7b):
אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי, מיום שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את העולם לא היה אדם שקראו להקדוש ברוך הוא אדון עד שבא אברהם וקראו אדון שנאמר, ויאמר אדני (אלהים) במה אדע כי אירשנה
Rabbi Yochanon said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: From the day that HaShem created the world, no one called HaShem “A-donay”] until Avraham came along and called Him by that name” [Genesis 15:8.]
What is the significance of calling HaShem by that name specifically?
Every one of HaShem ’s holy names, and there are ten, indicates a certain mode that HaShem is in. [Is that not כפירה according to the Rambam? HaShem never changes] This means that what will come forth from Him will simulate a certain way a person would act when in that same mode. For example, the main name of HaShem י-ק-ו-ק (The ק substitutes for the ה -so why the dashes?) is the name of HaShem when He is in His most kind and merciful mode. The name אלקים is HaShem ’s name of judgment and sternness. The name א-ד-נ-י comes from the word “master” and refers to HaShem as our Master. This means that HaShem is my master, and I am his faithful servant. I am obligated to do what He wants me to do, not that I decide what I want to do and make a religion about it so that I can do what I want with a clear conscience. That’s how all idol worshippers do it.
Avraham said to everyone, “You have it all wrong! HaShem is our Master, and we need to figure out what He wants us to do! We are His servants, and obligated to serve Him, not the other way around.”
This is the nature of idol worship, where the person himself is really the god he is worshipping, and the idol he worships is his excuse to do the things that he likes and wants to do under the deception of it being a religious and holy thing to do.
The Talmud (Shabbat 105b) teaches us:
אמר רבי אבין, מאי קראה לא יהיה בך אל זר ולא תשתחוה לאל נכר איזהו אל זר שיש בגופו של אדם הוי אומר זה יצר הרע
Rabbi Avin said, “The verse says (Psalms 91:10), ’There should not be within you a foreign god …’ Which foreign god resides within a person? The evil inclination.”
If a person follows his earthy desires and urges – the evil inclination within him- he is following a foreign god because he has made himself a slave to the fulfillment of his desires- his god.
This explains idol worship’s great allure . We see throughout the Tanach (written Torah) that many times the Jewish people veered from the Torah path to follow a path of idol worship, and we wonder what was with them? What was so enticing about the idol over our wonderful Torah?
The answer is that, “I choose the idol that suits my needs, and I get to do the things I like to do, and don’t have to do any of the things I don’t like to do.” That’s a great system for feeling good all around.
The Midrash (99:4) makes the point in the following way:
א”ר יוחנן, הרשעים מתקיימין על אלהיהם “ופרעה חולם והוא עומד על היאור” אבל הצדיקים אלקיהם מתקיים עליהם (בראשית כח) “והנה ה’ נצב עליו.”
Rabbi Yochanan said. The evil ones stand on top of their gods, as it says “And Pharaoh was standing on the Nile” (one of his gods) but the righteous‘ their G-ds stand above them, as it says (about Yaakov), “And HaShem was standing above him.”
The evil ones stand on top of their gods and dictate to them what they should say. The righteous stand below their G-d, and look up to Him and seek His direction.
This is our lifelong challenge: whether to coronate ourselves as king and cater to our own individual needs, or to coronate HaShem as our king and make it our lifelong goal to serve Him. We perceive ourselves as so gifted and powerful with so much potential to explore that our initial tendency is to “go for it” and actualize every possible option and potential that we have. And we do so without regard to the demands that our Creator has placed upon us.
The other option is to actualize our inherent great potential within the framework of HaShem ’s commandmentsHaShem . By subscribing to HaShem ’s kingdom, we tap into the most powerful kingdom in the world! HaShem who created this vast, brilliant, powerful world, and created us, has so much more to offer than what we can possibly do ourselves. As mortals, we will also leave this world at some point, and no matter how great we were, no matter how much we accomplished, it is all left for others. After all is said and done, what do we really have to show for all our “greatness?” We are all destined to become feed for the worms.
On the other hand, when one subscribes to HaShem ’s Kingdom, all of his actions are eternal and will be there to greet us when our souls leave this world and go to the eternal world of souls. There, one’s soul will reap the reward for all the times that he overcame his personal desire and instead performed the deed that HaShem requested of him. He so much wanted, for example, to eat that non-kosher doughnut, relate that juicy piece of gossip, but, with great effort, he refrained, and did as HaShem prescribed. For this, he is entitled to eternal reward. He was HaShem ’s faithful servant HaShem .
For us as Americans, brought up with the ideal of freedom so beloved and prominent in our minds, the idea of one subjugating his will to that of another, even to HaShem , is not a popular idea. It seems to fly in the face of everything that we were taught about the freedoms we find so precious as Americans. How can a born and raised American be expected to give up his beloved freedom and accept the yoke of heaven upon his back?
The question’s correct answer requires one to understand that being “free” to do whatever he wants is not really freedom. On the contrary, it is likely the greatest form of slavery possible! When one feels obligated to fulfill his every whim and desire, and cannot overcome that desire, he is bound to spend his life seeking ways of fulfilling his desires. In reality, he is a slave to his desires for they are what control his every move. In short, he has made himself into a god.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (6:5) clearly expresses this idea:
ב) אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, וְאוֹמֵר וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא חָרוּת עַל הַלֻּחֹת, אל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּא חֵרוּת, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶּן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says,… “There is no free person in the world except one who learns Torah.”
Someone who can make conscious decisions of what is the correct and right thing to do in a given circumstance, instead of being trapped into performing what his urges or inclinations want him to do, is truly a free person. He is free from the dictates of his physical, materialistic urges. The one who gives in to his every whim and urge is the biggest slave in the world. Although somewhat counterintuitive, a moment’s thought will yield how precisely accurate this notion is.
There is yet another powerful motivation for an American to accept the yoke of Heaven as the expression of his precious freedom. What a privilege it is to be the servant of none other than the King of all Kings, HaShem , the G-d of Israel! The Talmud teaches us (Shavuot 47b) עבד מלך כמלך “the servant of the king is like a king.” Because we have the merit of serving the great HaShem , we are a noble people – a nation of kings. With HaShem as great as He is, we should feel privileged with every opportunity to fulfill His commandments!