“Avraham in the Idol Shop” is amongst the most cherished medrashim of our formative kindergarten parsha classes. It's a story of good old fashion Jewish smarts, of mesirus nefesh, of boldness and audaciousness.
Do you remember the first time you heard the story? And the punch line that he blamed it on the biggest idol. Brilliant! Look at him go! Smashing those idols, proving their worthlessness. Standing up to his parents, society and king. Every child leaves their kindergarten class thinking “when I grow up, one day I too will be like Avraham.”
But careful eyes will notice that there’s a major problem with the story. Because Avraham himself never grows up to be like Avraham. This is a one time event. Indeed, the Avraham that we meet in Lech Lecha is decidedly not an idol smasher.
And so the Chasam Sofer (ריש לך לך) questions: Why does Avraham destroy the idols in his home town of Ur Casdim, but never in Eretz Yisrael? Surely it would be his sacred duty to inform all those around him of the importance of ridding the Sacred Land of Israel of traces of Avodah Zara?
And yet he doesn't. This is not a result of weakness. Avraham is no push over. He goes to war against four armies and wins. And yet, never again does he wield the axe of destruction.
What changed? The Chasam Sofer explains:
In Eretz Yisrael, Avraham learned he could be successful without the axe. In Ur Casdim, no one believed him. No-one listened to him. Even his brother Haran acquiesced to Avraham's truth only after his miraculous salvation from Nimrod’s fire. But in the moment that Avraham realized that he could convince and convert and inspire without the axe, he abandons it forever.
From that point on, Avraham grows up to embody Chessed. He opens his tent, invites people in. He runs a perpetual soup kitchen, shabbaton and seminar and people flock to him.
This is his legacy. This becomes his life’s mission. Avraham understands that he was never successful with violence in Ur Casdim. There he was Avraham the "Ivri" the outsider, the maverick, the lunatic who gets thrown into the fire. It is only in Eretz Yisrael that he realizes there is a better way.
This year has proven that our society still values the perspective of the idol smasher. Of course, most often with a pen rather than a sword. With our sharpened wit and nimble words we slice and dice the idols of our friends and neighbors and commenters online. We cherish a good zinger, furiously forwarding that brilliant meme or laugh-out-loud clip. All in the name of bringing down the idols. And if we’re honest about it, we quite like it.
For all our whining about divisiveness and lack of civility, we enjoy the sport of idol smashing. We scream into our echo chambers precisely because we enjoy the sounds that come back. But Avraham teaches us that smashing idols has never convinced anyone of anything.
And political rhetoric is only the tip of the iceberg. Our idol smashing sometimes extends to relationships with our spouces and parents. It influences our parenting, teaching and friendships and that’s where it gets really dangerous.
I have yet to meet an adult who wears Tzitzis because his Rebbe embarrassed him at tzitzis check. I have yet to meet a women who was successfully shamed into becoming tzanua. And if they do exist, I pity them, and daven for mercy for the parents and teachers that traumatized them so effectively.
I don’t know of anyone who successfully changed their diets and eating habits because they were ridiculed for being fat. Has anyone's spouse ever become cleaner, more punctual, or more attentive as a result of yelling at them?
Of course, there are many people who grow in spite of the hatred direct towards them. But I think we can all agree that Avraham 2.0 is certainly a better model for us.
So how did Avraham figure it out?
The parsha opens with Hashem's directive to Avraham: לך לך - go for yourself. And Rashi famously comments: להנאתך, לטובתך - for your own benefit, for your own good. He promises Avraham much success and Bracha and thus the Torah (יב:ד) tells us that:
וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אַבְרָ֗ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר אֵלָיו֙ י״י֔ - So Abram went, as Hashem had spoken to him.
The Tiferes Shlomo (חג הסוכות) explains: Avraham began to walk, to live, to operate, to speak to others, exactly as Hashem had spoken to him. Hashem says to Avraham "Go to the land I will show you, and its going to be great for you. Yiddishkeit is inspiring, its meaningful, it's filled with Bracha." This doesn't mean, of course, that it's always easy. But Hashem kindles within Avraham the capacity to model positivity. He does it for Avraham, and Avraham does it for the world.
Immediately, the Torah describes how Lot comes along, and then the הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן - all the people that Avraham had convinced in Charan.
All that Avraham needed was for Hashem to show him that you can do far more with a word than you can with a weapon. You can do far more by believing than by belittling. You can achieve far more with a dinner than a debate.
Ground Zero for PositivityThis is the secret of Avraham's success. He becomes Ground Zero for Positivity. He reorients his life in that moment to being a person who refuses to do anything other than love other people. And it's contagious, it's infectious. It's transformative.
And that's our challenge. To be children of Avraham is to be unshakably positive. Not just because it’s right. But because it simply works better. That’s the secret that Hashem told Avraham: if you show people that you believe in them, they will believe in themselves, in you and in your truth.
The story of the idols is not the story of Avraham's success. It's the story of his failure. It's the story of a methodology that he tried and abandoned because there is always a better way.
Recently, at a Seudas HoDa’ah someone made from being cured from a deadly sickness, he said that the following was the secret to his recovery: “One day, lying in the hospital, the doctors convened near my bed, assuming I was asleep since my eyes were closed. One doctor said that according to statistics, he barely has a chance to live. Yet, I'm certain he will survive because he has a strong desire to live. After hearing those words, I made a strong commitment to remain strong and pull out of the illness. I constantly thought, ‘I have the willpower to live and I will survive.’ That is what pulled me through the road until recovery.”
The man then introduced the doctor. In his speech, the doctor related the following: “Everything the patient said was true. I remember that meeting at his bedside, when I said that the patient will recover due to his strong desire to live. However, I was speaking about a different patient, not about him. His illness was so severe that I didn’t imagine he could survive, even with a strong desire. I learned from his recovery that when one has a strong desire to live, he can recover even from the most severe illness. Also, encouragement goes a long way, even when the patient only imagines that it was intended for him.”
That was Hashem's message to Avraham: Put down the axes, open your tent, and open your heart.
A student of Reb Yechezkel of Kozmir once got a job as a rabbi. Before he began his new position he went to his Rebbe to get a Bracha that he should be successful, and that people shouldn't give him a hard time.
Reb Yechezkel opened a Chumash to parshas Noach, and read:
אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ
This is the history of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, whole, among the people of his time. Noah walked with God.
He then turned to Rashi, who writes:
Some of our Rabbis explain this pasuk to Noach's credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.
"Apparently," said the Rebbe, "even for a person who the Torah says is completely righteous, a צַדִּיק תָּמִים, at the moment they have a position of importance there will be people that approve, and people that disapprove."
It's an all-to-true observation of leadership.
Of course, attempting to resolve the ambiguity in the Pasuk is a fair endeavor. When the Torah tells us that Noach was a tzadik in "his generation", does that add to his righteousness or detract from it?
Let's consider: The Torah clearly tells us that Noach was a tzadik. He walked with Hashem. He alone is saved from the flood; he is the father of the new world. That's pretty good! And since when do we have to look so intensely to figure out whether or not he was such a tzadik?!
Drashos and commentaries throughout the ages have dealt with this problem; all suggesting that his flaws and faults make the ambiguity of his righteousness obvious.
Some have argued that Noach's end, getting drunk and becoming an "Ish Adama" call his tzadik status into question. Others argue that his lack of obvious entreating on behalf of his generation preclude him from being an absolute tzadik. Yet others argue that his failure to engage in the world after the flood is his downfall.
There's a lot to say about Noach. A casual read of the parsha reveals that he is a complex character. The questions remains unresolved. Which one is correct? Is Noach really a tzadik? Is he just the best of a bad generation? Which one is true?
The answer, of course, is that it's complicated. Because summing up, judging and evaluating a person is always complicated. Noach is a devout follower of the word of Hashem; he is impervious to the pressures of his generation. He single handedly builds an ark and sustains all life for a year, with immense self sacrifice. Does he fail? Sure. Does he succeed? Undoubtably! So which one is it?
Perhaps our estimation of Noach says much more about us than it does about him.
And the same is true about everyone we meet. There is no one in our lives, no-one ever, that isn't a complex amalgamation of שבח and גנאי - of praise and denigration. The story of Noach simply asks us: Which do you see?
The Toras Chaim of Kosov notes that Rashi himself has an opinion as to which perspective is correct. He notes that when Rashi informs us of this duality, he writes:
יש מרבותינו דורשים לשבח... ויש דורשים לגנאי
Some of our teachers explain his praise, and some explain his denigration.
Our teachers explain how to praise, others, do the opposite. The question that Rashi is posing is: who is your Rebbe? Is your role model the cynic? The scoffer? The critic? Or is your Rebbe the optimist? The humanist? The one who is looking for the best in other people? Both approaches are accurate, to an extent. And the choice of which perspective to highlight is open to us all.
And so Rashi tells us: Our teachers are the ones that say Noach is a tzadik.
This orientation towards people is baked into the most lasting impression of the Parsha: The Rainbow. The Torah tells us that the rainbow is a sign to remind us of Hashem's promise not to destroy the world for our sins. Indeed, in perfectly righteous generations, rainbows were never seen.
But the schism between how the rainbow appears, and the reason for it, is difficult to navigate. Hashem shows us a rainbow as Mussar, as rebuke. But what a strange sign of rebuke! A beautiful paining in the sky is hardly a fitting reminder of our downward spiral.
Perhaps like any good parent or teacher, when Hashem wants to give us Mussar, He chooses to show us the beauty of the world, the majesty of His creations. The rainbow is a reminder that we should live לשבח - with praise - it's the symbol of positive, colorful growth. It's a hug, it's not a finger wag. Ultimately, Hashem Himself is the Rebbe who is דורש לשבח - who explains how wonderful we are and could be.
A number of months ago, Sivan Rahav Meir shared the following story from Avinoam Hirsch which illustrates this point beautifully:
“At school, I gave a certificate of excellence to one student, but by mistake I sent a notification about it to the mother of another student: ‘Bravo! Your child received a certificate of excellence!’. By the time I realized my mistake and tried to delete it, I already got an answer: ‘You do not understand what your message did for me. It is the happiest thing that has happened to me this week’. I realized that her child is going to go home without really having a certificate of excellence, which he really did not deserve. That day I had even asked him to leave the classroom because he did not stop disturbing the class.
I went to him and told him what had happened, and then said: ‘Listen, you are the first student to whom I am going to loan a certificate of excellence. You do not deserve it, but I believe that your behavior in the upcoming week will justify it’. When he heard that I told his mother that he got a certificate of excellence, his eyes lit up and he said: ‘Just last night my mother cried that I make her so sad, after she talked with my English teacher. Thank you. I will not let you down’.
Throughout the following week, this naughty student, who had always ruined the classes, turned into an angel. The school’s educational consultant asked me if his mother started giving him Ritalin, and I answered: ‘No. He is on a much stronger stuff which burns inside of him. It is called trust’.”
There is always the option to denigrate, to put people down. But the option to lift each other up is always always present. Hashem should help us to live לשבח - to learn from Him to see the best. Those who believe it should be our teachers and we should become such teachers to world around us.
I am not ambivalent. I don't think anyone is, or can be. My orientation to this intense political drama is not resultant from a lack of thought or opinions. I, just like you, have opinions. Some of them are even strong opinions.
Why don't I care who you vote for? It's an Avoda. Every day I am attempting to live a dialectic - a bifurcation of sorts. Of course, there is the famous and well explored dialectic of separating between a person and their thoughts/actions. This distinction was crystallized by Bruria, the wife of Rebbe Meir who admonished her husband that Hashem does not want to see the demise of sinners, but of sins. We could all stand to do some more work in this arena.
But even invoking the "sin vs sinner" conversation is a branding of sorts that I'd like to avoid. It's a "looking down from my pedestal" approach. And in the heat of our current political brouhaha, I think you'd agree that it is unhelpful.
Instead, the dialectic I wish to explore is a little more nuanced, and less understood. It's the point of conflict between Torah and Tefillah.
Chazal (מסכת מגילה) tell us that a person may not approach Hashem with the claim: "You had mercy and commanded us to send away the mother bird, so too You should have mercy on us." The Talmud challenges: "Why not?!" Ostensibly, it's a good Tefilah. The Talmud answers: "One is explaining Hashem's laws as mercy, and they are simply decrees."
The Rishonim are intensely bothered by this answer. Especially considering that a considerable portion of Rabbinic writing is an attempt to understand Hashem's rationale behind the mitzvos. Indeed, Targum Yonasan, Rambam and Ramban all write that the Mitzvah of Sending Away the Mother bird is to express and/or educate mercy! The Ramban resolves the discrepancy by explaining that we do not follow the opinion of the Talmud in Megillah, and that suggesting explanations for the Mitzvos of Hashem is perfectly allowed!
The Mei HaShiloach (פרשת אמור), however, attempts to resolve the conundrum by making a fascinating and instructive observation: There is a stark difference between Torah and Tefillah. The job of a Jew in the Beis HaMedrash is to make every attempt to understand the reasons and rationales for Hashem's Mitzvos. We are invited, or even obligated, to use every shred of intellect to plum the depths of Ratzon Hashem and extract meaning, learning, and significance. The purpose of our God given intellect is to amass information and filter it through the prism of our unique perspectives. With enough time, thought, intellectual honesty, conversation and rigor, eventually we arrive at a well thought out conclusion.
But this is not true in Shul. When we approach Hashem in Tefillah, we need to resign our desire to explain and understand. Standing before the Master of All Worlds, it is not the height of audacity to claim "I know why You told me to do this mitzvah?" In the presence of Hashem, I am not a lawyer. I am not a chavrusa. I have no right to speak. This is why we begin our Shmonah Esrei with ה׳ שפתי תפתח - "Hashem open my lips..." If You don't, I cannot even start.
Essentially, the Avoda of Tefillah is to turn to Hashem and say: "I don't know why the world is the way it is. I don't know why You want it this way. But I know that without You nothing is possible." It's the epitome of humility. To know that everything I have worked and struggled to understand and develop, is barely a detail of a detail in the Infinity of the Mind of God. And yet, He gives me the opportunity to speak to Him. That's pretty cool. And it's something I should appreciate and learn from.
The Beis Yaakov (ריש פ׳ בראשית) explains that this perspective is ingrained in our weekly observance of Shabbos. It's a day that we remove our own creative capacity and focus on the reality the Hashem can - and does - run the world without us.
It is this dialectic, this dichotomy that I think is most instructive and constructive in the heat of our politically changed world. Put simply: If man plans and God laughs, then to be Godly is to laugh at our own plans as well.
Most laughable, of course, is the insanity of trying to sum up the entirety of another person based on a single variable.
We need to be able to balance our best intellectual rigor with the ability to laugh at ourselves. Of course, we need to be able to develop deep thoughts and profound opinions, but then we check them in at sunset on Friday afternoon. And every time we enter into a Shul or open a siddur.
In the intimate world of Tefillah and Shabbos, Hashem can bring health, happiness, redemption, security, success and prosperity in a myriad of ways, both red and blue. The inability to concede to that point is heresy.
Does that mean that I can't daven for the success of my candidate? Of course not! A Jew can ask Hashem for anything. But here's my personal attempt at formulating and articulating a Tefillah with humility:
Master of the Universe, our world is confusing, and many things seem to be at stake. From all that I have learned and understood, I think that the greatest Kiddush Hashem would be if candidate (X) wins the election. Please help that be so.
But You know everything. And I am limited and susceptible to all sorts of influences.
I might well be completely misreading and misunderstanding the world before my eyes. So, Master of the Universe, please help me. Help me to understand what You want from me, what You want from us. Help me to be a source of Bracha and Simcha in the world. Help me to listen with an open mind and open heart to those who agree and disagree with me. Help me to control my frustrations, and help me to avoid labeling people accordingly to an arbitrary and blunt binary. Help me to see the beauty and nuance of everyone I encounter, and help me to learn from them. Please help me to see Your Great Hand as You direct history towards the Geulah speedily in our days.
Ribono Shel Olam, as the people of the USA prepare to vote, please help me to vote for Torah and Mitzvos and Klal Yisrael and the Safety and Security of the State of Israel. Please help me to vote for Chessed and Charity and Kindness and Ahavas Chinam. Avinu Malkeinu, please help me to vote for You. And please keeping voting for me.
For a long time Rabbi Mordechai of Neshchiz longed for a tallit katan made of cloth from Eretz Yisrael. When the special fine wool finally arrived, he asked one of his favorite students to honor him by sewing for him a tallit katan. The student agreed. But unfortunately the student accidentally folded the cloth twice and instead of one neckhole he cut two, creating a tear that could not be repaired. The student was mortified about this, and feared that his teacher would be angry with him.
But Rabbi Mordechai did not reprimand his pupil, and did not even show anger toward him. Just the opposite. He smiled at him and said, “Good job, my son! You carried out the task according to Jewish law. I really need two pairs of the tallit katan. One to fulfill the mitzvah of tallit katan, and the other to put Reb Mordechai to the test, to see if he can overcome his yetzer hara (evil inclination) to get angry.”
It’s a great story. Though I’m not sure how well the great Rebbe of Neshchiz would fare in Tishrei 5781 in the USA.
This week alone we have had to contend with COVID-19 and the destructiveness of partisan politics in fighting it. We have been faced with brothers and sisters publicly defaming Torah and Klal Yisrael by burning masks in NY. And then needing to defend our values and community from the anti-semitism such insanity has spawned. We are constantly asked to choose sides with less and less nuance. The echo-chambers are getting tighter and louder, and the debates between those vying to lead this country are not safe for our children to watch (or adults, to be fair.)
Indeed, I think we’re are more than justified in finding much to by angry about.
But there is a cost to our anger. And there are loose ends on the other side of our righteous indignation. We are rightfully frustrated. We are justifiably upset. We are appropriately angry. But that also means we are frustrated, upset and angry. Where do these emotions lead? What lies on the other side of these honorable but undeniably negative emotions?
One thing is certain: Our emotions do not appear to change the actions of those who are responsible for these circumstances. We are not winning over the perpetrators to our side. Perhaps there are fence-sitters and bystanders that might be swayed. Perhaps by registering our frustrations we might absolve ourself of any associations with these rabble rousers and trouble makers. But these options are woefully insufficient vents for the negativity we generate and harbor.
Most often, we channel our frustrations in one of two ways: inside or outside. Channeling inside slowly eats away at our innocence and optimism. Given enough time, righteous indignation will transform even the most bright eyed dreamer into a cynic. Hope is lost to sadness and ideals crash on the shores of realism. We, sadly, call this "maturity".
Channeling the frustrations outwards has the advantage of keeping our dreams intact. The cost, however, is the growing resentment that the world will "never get it". The big "they" will never understand. Sarcasm becomes the new humor, and people stop listening to our ideas; knowing that their ideas and ideals will only be belittled in contrast.
So what is there left to do? Not have an opinion? Not protest the evils in the world? I do not think the Master of the World wants us to lobotomize ourselves into dim-witted shoulder shrugging.
Here are three suggestions:
1.Protest is not the same as Anger
Consider the following story:
A number of years ago, a certain bus arrived in the Bnei Brak terminal after Yom Tov. The terminal was packed with people eager to get back home to Jerusalem with the 401 bus. The bus was late. Kids were crying. Everyone was cranky and irritable.
A bus arrived at the terminal door with number 301 to a different city. After five minutes, a few people approached the bus driver and begged him to change the number to 401 and take them to Jerusalem.
The bus driver told them. "I am sorry but if I change my bus number, I risk losing my job, getting a fine, etc."
After a few minutes, people asked him again and pleaded with him.
The bus driver accepted and everyone quickly boarded the bus, thanking and lauding the heroic bus driver.
When the bus neared Jerusalem, one person asked the bus driver: "aren't you afraid of losing your job, your parnassah, getting a fine?"
The bus driver replied: "I'll tell you the truth. I really am the 401 bus. If I had come to the bus terminal as a 401, everyone would have been cranky and angry throughout the trip. But now, I am treated like a hero".
The bus driver understood - and exploited - the greatest secret of anger and frustration: They are, at their core, a response to mismatched expectations. Rebbe Nachman explains (שיחות הר״ן מב):
עצבות הוא כמו מי שהוא בכעס וברוגז כמו שמתרעם ומתלונן עליו יתברך חס ושלום על שאינו עושה לו רצונו
...anger and rage are a complaint against God for not fulfilling one’s wishes.
We get angry because we feel that the world should be the way we think it should be. And what will be if it isn't?! We are annoyed and upset.
We have transformed the essential obligation of calling out injustice into an emotion rather than an Avoda. The need to protest is not a license to feel anger, but rather a charge to display anger.
This distinction is well known to every good parent.
2.Don't Channel the Anger In or Out. Send it Up.
But what should we do if despite all attempts, we still get angry? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that our custom of saying Hoshanos throughout Sukkos is the staging of a formal protest to Hashem against the Yetzer Hara. “HoShana” literally means: “Save us from this!” We usually think we need saving from hurricanes, fools, anti-semites and stock market crashes. But truthfully, we need far more saving from the negativity of our broken thoughts and minds.
In the deepest sense, all of our tefillos on Sukkos are attempts to lift our problems to Hashem. At the very least, we should protest upwards as much as we protest outwards.
3. Ask: Where Does This Emotion Take Me?
Social media has yet to create an Emoji for the reaction that describes: “I would like to display my sincere displeasure. But really, I’m ok, and my world will continue with Simcha and Emuna.”
Chazal tell us that during Sukkos, we would bring 70 korbanos on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. In essence, the Jewish people in those years were a fulfillment of the promise that Hashem gave to Avraham:
וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה - And through you all families of the earth will be blessed.
Being a light of wisdom unto the nations comes later. Our first concern should be “What is my presence contributing”. This is a heavy charge. It asks us to consider: Am I a source of Bracha for the world, or God forbid the opposite?
We should take note of the emotions we are feeling and feeding. It becomes simple to see that while the source might be nobly founded, this does not guarantee that it leads us to place we want to be.
If we cannot hold back our anger from taking root, and we cannot channel it into a Tefillah, then, in my my humble opinion, we should reconsider the righteousness of our indignation. Perhaps it’s not so righteous after all...
The unique Avoda of this Chag is Joy - Simcha. The Gra explains (סוף אבן שלמה פרק יא) that the Simcha we are attempting to feel now is borrowed from the world of clarity yet to come. But if we want it, if we work on it, we can taste a piece of that now. Hashem should help us to because epicenters of that Simcha. And that despite the fissures and frustrations we should become a source of Bracha.