Abram's Family Theater / Parashat Lech Lecha

Nimrod is clarifying to Abram that God doesn't want people to believe him, nor for them to abandon their idols. In fact, the subject is not religious faith. God simply wants Abram.

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We do not know why God chooses Abram and grants him the far-reaching promises that appear in this week’s Torah portion. Although the text does not offer any reasons for God’s choice, the midrash does elaborate − relating how, as a child, Abram smashed the idols in his father’s shop and then blamed the largest idol for the deed. In this midrash, Abram − who was much later in life renamed “Abraham” by God − is described as an individual who, from early childhood, held on to a firm monotheistic belief and was passionate about disseminating it.

That is the usual interpretation used to explain why God commands Abram to journey to Canaan and to found the Hebrew nation there. However, if one takes a closer look at this formative apologetic myth, one can see that things are not so simple.

Abram’s story opens with an exposition: “Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah begot Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees” ‏(Genesis 11:27-28‏). The short story about the life and death of Haran is the subject of the following well-known midrash: “It is written, ‘And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah.’ Rabbi Hiya the grandson of Rabbi Adda from Jaffa says: ‘Terah was an idol-worshiper. One day, he journeyed somewhere and left Abram in charge of his shop. When a man came in who wanted to buy an idol, Abram asked him, ‘How old are you?’ He replied, ‘Fifty or sixty.’ And Abram said to him, ‘Woe is the man who is 60 years old and who is willing to worship an idol that is only one day old.’ The man felt embarrassed and left.

“One day a woman holding a bowl filled with semolina appeared in the shop. She said to Abram, ‘Place this bowl as a sacrificial offering to them.’ Abram got up and, grabbing a staff, smashed all the idols in his father’s shop and placed the staff in the hand of the biggest idol. When his father came home, he asked Abram, ‘Who did all this damage to the idols?’ ‘I cannot lie to you,’ replied Abram. ‘A woman came here with a bowl of semolina and said to me: Take this bowl and place it as a sacrificial offering to them. I placed the bowl before them. One of them said, ‘I will be the first to eat from this bowl,’ and the second one said, ‘I will be the first to eat from this bowl.’ The biggest one picked up a staff and smashed all of them. Terah said to Abram: ‘Are you mocking me? Are they able to do such things?’ Abram answered, ‘If only your ears could hear what your mouth is saying now.’

“He took [Abram] and handed him over to Nimrod. Nimrod said to Abram, ‘Let us worship fire.’ Abram said to him, ‘Let us worship the water that puts out the fire.’ Nimrod said, ‘Let us worship the water.’ Abram said, ‘If so, let us worship the cloud that bears the water.’ Nimrod said, ‘Let us worship the cloud.’ Abram said, ‘If so, let us worship the wind that scatters the clouds.’ Nimrod said, ‘Let us worship the wind.’ Abram said, ‘Let us worship the man who stands in the wind.’ Nimrod said, ‘You are playing with words. I will bow down only to fire and I will throw you into it. Let the god that you bow down to come and save you from the fire.’

“Haran was there and he debated with himself, ‘If Abram wins, I will say that I am on Abram’s side. If Nimrod wins, I will say that I am on Nimrod’s side.’ When Abram descended into the furnace and emerged unscathed, Haran was asked, ‘On whose side are you?’ He said, ‘I am on Abram’s side.’ They took him and threw him into the fire, where his intestines shriveled up in the intense heat. He emerged from the furnace and, falling at the feet of Terah his father, he died. As it written, ‘And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah’” ‏(Bereisheet Rabbah 38:13‏).

Abram exploits his father’s absence from the shop so as to stage a theatrical presentation ostensibly intended to ridicule his father’s beliefs, and thereby lead him to accept Abram’s own code of beliefs. The presentation takes place precisely as planned, including the lines written especially for Terah; it does not, however, do the job. Terah does not undergo a conversion to Abram’s monotheism. Quite the contrary: Terah sends his son to Nimrod.

Despite the failure of the drama, it would appear that the young Abram does enjoy a moment of catharsis. His feeling of victory stems not from Terah’s changing his code of beliefs, but rather from the fact that the father becomes an actor in the play that his son has directed on his behalf. Terah recites the line that has been assigned him, and, in doing so, unconsciously voices a monotheistic belief that is contrary to his occupation as a seller of idols.

Terah has a starring role in the play of which Abram is the director, but he is also its audience. The performance is not a failure because it was intended not to make Terah change his beliefs but rather to make him look ridiculous in the eyes of the audience. Having metaphorically murdered his father and his father’s beliefs, Abram can now can set off on the path he has chosen.

The play that was intended for Abram’s eyes also serves as a mirror of his monotheism. Abram places in the biggest idol’s mouth a concept that is foreign to Terah: the concept of one God who is unwilling to accept peaceful coexistence with other gods. Abram thus transcribes his monotheism to his father’s idol shop − which is a thoroughly polytheistic milieu − and fills the place with conflict and drama. He assigns to the biggest idol the zealous character of his own God. The play becomes not only a farcical version of the pagan world: It is actually an authentic presentation − even if not an explicit one − of the process in which the one God, who now reveals himself, “kills” the other gods.

In this play, Abram has an additional role: He is not only the producer, he is also the diligent theatrical stagehand who single-handedly smashes the idols in the name of his God and who, in the final analysis, hands the staff to the biggest idol. The biggest idol embodies a double representation: representing Abram who represents God.

Act II: The area of the stage expands; nature’s elements function here like the idols in Terah’s shop, but the drama unfolds solely at the verbal level. Nimrod proposes that Abram worship each of the following elements with him: fire, water, the cloud and the wind. With his deductive powers, Abram incites the elements against one another, thereby causing them to smash each other to pieces.

Nimrod is not, however, angry with Abram’s acts and arguments; he is angry with the fact that Abram is playing with words instead of grappling with reality. Nimrod thus throws him into the furnace to see whether Abram’s God will rescue him from the process he used to smash nature’s elements. In essence, Nimrod transforms Abram into an idol in an idol shop and also into an additional element in nature − one in the series of such elements that are being put to the test.

Using the same kind of logic that Abram presented, Nimrod wants to determine whether fire will destroy Abram or whether Abram will be able to withstand it. Once more, Abram plays the role of God, but this time the initiative is not Abram’s but that of a new director − Nimrod, who transforms the theater, much to everyone’s horror, from a theoretical discussion into an actual staged, theatrical test.

Here, the curtain descends upon Act II, and the eye of the midrash moves to Haran. It is now known that Haran, Abram’s brother, has been standing there all this time watching, and has been debating with himself the question of which side he should align himself with − Abram or Nimrod. Haran decides to be an unbiased spectator and therefore resolves not to determine in advance where he will place his commitment. When Abram, after being placed in the furnace, emerges unscathed, Haran, who identifies with the victor, declares that he is on Abram’s side.

The moment of Abram’s emergence from the furnace is also the play’s moment of catharsis: Abram emerges victorious, his faith is proven to be true, and the spectator, Haran, applauds. Unlike Terah, Haran undergoes the anticipated conversion to monotheism.

Here the curtain descends on Act III, and Act IV begins. This is a short, cruel act; it is actually the play’s main act, which overturns the entire script. The spectator who chose to identify with the victor is placed in the same position that the victor was in previously, and the spectator is ordered to undergo the same test the victor just underwent. However, this time, the action takes place outside the play’s framework: Haran is not representing God, but rather himself alone; he unwillingly becomes an actor in the play that Nimrod is directing − a play whose horrified spectator, one can assume, is Abram.

Haran’s murder constitutes a caricature of Abram’s play. Through this murder, Nimrod is clarifying to Abram that God does not want people to believe him, nor for them to abandon their idols. In fact, the subject is not religious faith. God simply wants Abram. Period.

The sages interpret the term “Abram the Hebrew” ‏(Genesis 14:13‏) in the following manner: “Rabbi Judah says that all the world would stand on one side, while Abram would stand on the other side” ‏(Bereisheet Rabbah 42:8‏). The midrash about Haran makes it clear that this fact does not stem from the accusation of the people, who do not recognize the universal truth, but rather stems from God’s arbitrary choice, which does not prioritize for any particular reason but which simply comes up with a priority. What the midrash presents is not an apologetic rationalization of the choice but rather a profound expression of arbitrariness that is sanctified.

Abram thought that his message was deductive and rational − however, he learns that deduction and rationalism have been mobilized simply for the purpose of murdering his father. Ultimately, the only one who, thanks to his sensitive theological nerves, understands the arbitrary nature of God’s love is the one who − according to the midrash − betrayed God: Nimrod.

"Nimrod," by Yitzhak Danziger (1939).Credit: Shlomo Serry