I distinctly remember when I was a first-year rabbinical student in Jerusalem and learned that the Bible story about Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop was actually not a Bible story at all. I learned that this story does not appear in the Torah. This story is not a part of what the Torah teaches us about our ancestor Abraham, the first Jew, as identified in our tradition. This story actually comes from the rabbinic imagination in the form of a midrash.
Midrash refers to the stories, the lessons, that our sages of blessed memory created to fill in the blanks in the Torah. In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, God calls to Abram, (before his name is changed to Abraham), for the first time. According to Torah, Abram was 75 years old when God commands him to leave his land, his home, the place of his birth. Our sages of blessed memory had so many questions. How could this be the first contact between Abram and God? What were Abram’s early years like that caused God to single him out for the Covenant? These and many other questions are addressed in midrash.
So, in the midrash that I thought was Torah, Abram is a young boy put in charge of his father’s, Terach’s, idol shop while dad went on a business trip to a neighboring village. Once his father shuts the door, Abram takes up a hammer and goes to work on the idols. He smashes all of them to pieces, save the largest one in the corner. Abram places the hammer in its folded arms and waits for dad to return.
Terach returns, sees the work of his hands utterly destroyed and begins to scream at Abram, “What have you done?!? You have ruined my business by smashing all of these idols!” Abram looks up at his father and replies with great innocence, “Father, it was not I who smashed all of these idols. You see the very large one in the corner? Do you see the hammer in its folded arms? Well, once you left, that idol became very jealous of the others in the shop. He is the one who smashed them in a fit of rage.” Terach, of course, did not believe this tale, and said to his son, “I made the statues myself and know they cannot come to life. To this Abram replied, “then how can you sell them to others as gods?”
This was a powerful moment for Abram, Terach, and God. The story helps the sages explain and teach something important about Abram; the qualities that made him unique. Not only was he able to understand the futility and emptiness of idol worship, he acted upon his belief. Abram was not afraid of the consequences. Abram acted upon his convictions.
Now the sages did not mean for this story to be a call to destroy your parents’ business or to disrespect your father or your mother. They did see in this story a lesson about the importance of belief in one God and God alone.
Today, in this story I also see the lesson of responsibility to act to make a difference. When we see someone making a mistake we have a responsibility to speak up about it. When we see people in positions of power using their position to mislead others, we must act to put an end to it. It may be scary. We may not think we have it within ourselves to do so. This midrash teaches that we must use what is within our grasp, within our reach, to effect change for the better, for the good. Sometimes that action may be dramatic, a virtual hammerstrike, but often it is in the smaller acts and softer words that can be most effective. May this Shabbat find us with renewed strength to take note and to take action. God knows that we need this strength now more than ever before.