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Avraham, Resh Lakish, and the Shards of Paganism

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Nov 8, 2019
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Perhaps the most well-known anecdote about the life of Avraham Avinu, aversion of which even appears in the Quran, does not even appear in the Torah. The Midrash (Bereshis Rabbah 38:13) tells the story of *Avraham and his father’s idol store.


Terach, Avraham’s father, owned an idol store. One time he went away and left Avaham in charge in his absence. A man walked in to the store to purchase an idol. Avraham asked him how old he was, and he responded “50.” Avraham then asked him why a man of said maturity would seek to purchase a one-day-old statue. The man left the store ashamed. Later on, a woman entered the establishment to offer a sacrifice to the idols. Avraham took a stick and smashed all the idols and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When Terach returned, he asked his son what happened to his inventory. Avraham responded that a woman walked in wanting to offer a sacrifice to the idols. He recounted that all the idols argued who should eat of the sacrifice first, when the largest idol took the staff and shattered all the other idols. Terach scoffed at his son’s report, claiming that idols have no knowledge. Avraham then challenged his father and argued how could you worship something that has no knowledge? The Midrash continues. Terach brought his “wayward” son to Nimrod, the sovereign of Ur. Nimrod engaged in a debate with Avraham. “We should worship fire.” Avraham responds that water extinguishes fire, so Nimrod suggested that they worship water. Avraham then pointed out that clouds hold water; Nimrod proposed that they venerate clouds. Avraham pushed back that wind pushes clouds, so Nimrod advised that wind be deified. Nimrod finally ran out of patience and commanded that Avraham be cast into the furnace and let his God save him. His God did indeed save him.


This celebrated Midrash comes to mind in the context of a halacha regarding the need to declare one’s idols null and void, to view them as completely worthless, before being able to derive any benefit from them. The Talmud (Avodah Zara 41b; Me’ilah 14a) asks if one is obliged to break idols by oneself, an act of nullification, or would it be sufficient if the idols broke on their own. Rabbi Yochanan ruled that one may not benefit from the idols; breaking by itself, without human effort, does not constitute nullification. However, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (known as Resh Lakish) rules that one may benefit from idols that broke on their own**. The Talmud clarifies the two positions. Rabbi Yochanan prohibited the broken idol because it can only be nullified when the owner nullifies it. Since the breakage occurred without human intervention, deriving any benefit would be prohibited. Resh Lakish, however, assumed that when the owner saw the shards of his fallen god, he would have realized it was worthless, and that realization would have been a sufficient nullification by the owner. “If the object of idol worship could not even save itself from destruction, will it save me from harm?” Both the Rambam (Laws Idolatry 8:11) and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 146:11) rule according to Rabbi Yochanan and claim that if shards of an idol are found, one may not benefit from them until it is officially nullified.


There is more to this Talmudic passage than a debate about shards of paganism. Resh Lakish, like Avraham, came (back) to God on his own. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) explains. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish was a bandit and, according to other opinions, he was even a gladiator. One day, when Rabbi Yochanan was swimming in the Jordan River, Resh Lakish jumped in after him. Rabbi Yochanan scolded the thief and declared that his strength should be used for the study of Torah. Resh Lakish retorted, your beauty (Rabbi Yochanan was known to be excessively handsome) should be for women. “If you return to God,” offered Rabbi Yochanan, “you can marry my sister, who is better looking than I.” Resh Lakish agreed. (The Midrash Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer, ch. 42, describes the quality and seriousness of Resh Lakish’s teshuvah). At first Resh Lakish was a prime disciple of Rabbi Yochanan. Eventually they became equals and study partners. The Talmud is replete with the debates between these loving brothers-in-law. In the same passage, Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish debate over what types of knives are susceptible to ritual impurity (some say Rabbi Yochanan was in the river immersing the knives for ritual purposes). Rabbi Yochanan quips, “A thief knows his own tools.” Throughout the Talmud, in all the disputes between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish one can observe a trend.*** Rabbi Yochanan, who was able to see the nobility of Resh Lakish the bandit, sees the untoward past of the baal teshuvah as an asset; the teshuvah strengthens the piety of the baal teshuvah. Resh Lakish struggles with his past. The shame is his and his alone, even though he has overcome it. In the case of the broken idols, Rabbi Yochanan believes that the individual must nullify it no matter what. The action of avoiding the profane must be an active choice of elevation. Rabbi Yochanan focuses on the idolater; Resh Lakish is more concerned with the idol.


A similar dispute (Bava Kama 22a) seems to bear out this observation. When a fire breaks out and spreads to a neighbor’s property, how do we assess liability? Rabbi Yochanan ruled that human agency (i.e. whoever lit the fire) bears responsibility, while Resh Lakish sees the fire as property. Rabbi Yochanan sees the fire’s source ultimately as the one who began it, even if they had no intention of it spreading. Resh Lakish isn’t as interested in the past history of the fire. Ultimately, the fire spread to the neighbor’s property, and the fire itself is the cause. Rabbi Yochanan sees the whole history as part of the current status; Resh Lakish wants to ignore the past, which in his case was shameful, and focus on the new object minus the past. One more Talmudic dispute (Yoma 86b) is worth noting. “Rabbi Yochanan said, great is repentance, for it overrides a prohibition in the Torah [i.e. it can change the past]; Resh Lakish said that teshuvah is so great that premediated sins are transformed into accidental ones [i.e. it changes the history.]


There are two ways to improve ourselves. One way is to see ourselves as a completely new creation, unrelated to our imperfect version one of the past. The other view is to leverage the shameful past to make the transformation even greater. There are dozens of sources for both of these interpretations within Jewish literature.


When Avraham broke his father’s idols, it can be viewed as an act of zeal, or the behavior of a recovering pagan trying to use his past to educate others. Whatever Avraham’s motivation, it behooves us all to study his actions and learn from them.


*Although this event takes place before Avraham’s name change from Avram, I will still refer to him as Avraham, as is common practice.


** The Gemara (Avodah Zara 49b) records a similar dispute between Rav and Shmuel and the halacha follows Rav based on the principle that in disputes between Rav and Shmuel, we follow Rav on ritual issues and Shmuel on financial matters.


*** Many thanks to my friend, Rabbi Shaanan Gelman, of Kehilat Chovevei Tzion in Skokie,IL, for developing this trend. You can see a shiur he delivered here.  


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Children in pre-school learn the famed Midrash about Avraham and his father's idol store. But there is deeper meaning to the Midrash, especially in light of a halacha about idols that broke on their own and a dispute between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish.

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