“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.