Abraham's father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop. A woman came in with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, "Take this and offer it to the gods.” Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.
When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. "Who did this?" he cried. "How can I hide anything from you?" replied Abraham calmly. "A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, "I'm going to eat first." Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces."
"What are you trying to pull on me?" asked Terach, "Do they have minds?"
Said Abraham: "Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?"
Midrash Genesis Rabbah
The midrash about Abraham smashing his father’s idols is perhaps the best known of all rabbinic tales. It is so oft-told that many Jews mistakenly believe it’s found in the Torah itself. In fact, Torah says nothing about Terach being an idolator. So why is this story so popular?
I believe it points to the centrality of iconoclasm in Jewish life. According to the midrash, Abraham’s call commences only after he destroys his father’s gods. One might think that his life journey starts with the command “Lech L’chah!—Go forth!” that opens this week’s portion and bestows its name—but it doesn’t. Instead, all that Abraham will accomplish begins with an act of destruction. In order to create something new, Abraham must first question everything that came before him. He is not content to maintain the status quo for its own sake—he’s determined to blaze his own path. Abraham’s unwavering pursuit of truth leads him to monotheism, to a belief in the one God who will enter into a covenantal relationship with him and the Jewish people to follow. We are his heirs.
It is no accident that Jewish iconoclasts have changed the world time and again. Our prophets had the chutzpah to challenge societal norms—and even argue with God. In our time, Jewish artists, scientists, and social activists have maintained this proud tradition of questioning established traditions and putting forth visions of a better world.
This week, consider taking some time to reflect on your own past. What “idols” did you have to shatter to launch yourself on your own journey into adulthood?