Abraham Smashed the Idols
I asked friends on social media what their favorite midrash is.
Mine remains Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop.
He smashed all but one, and handed the stick to the biggest one. He told his father that they fought for a woman’s offering, and that one prevailed. Terah, his father, said, “but they’re just statues!”
Abraham responded, “then why do you worship them?”
My relationship to this midrash has evolved over the years. At the core of it is that our monotheism begins with an iconoclast who rejected the status quo at his own peril. I was smashing the idols in my own life as I embraced yiddishkeit.
It’s fascinating that as we grow, so, too, can our relationship to our texts.
In 1996, well into becoming ba’al tshuvah, I betrayed a gay friend in the Army, because by the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell order, it was the right thing to do, but morally and ethically, I do not believe it was. It cost him his service, possibly his benefits.
Every part of that felt wrong. With the advent of social media, I found that he’s “born again,” and has been “praying away the gay.” I wanted to reach out, to apologize for what I did, for not standing up, but it feels like I would just rub salt in a still gaping wound for this man.
But the lesson was learned. I retire in 552 days from the National Guard. I will retire as a staff sergeant nearly 30 years from the day I enlisted. I have peers from my early active duty days who were the 82nd Airborne Division CSM, or other distinguished positions. I’m a good soldier, but I don’t keep my mouth shut, whether it’s sexual assault or counter to my beliefs on the border.
My professional life has benefited from that, and to be honest, I’ve not often come into ethical quandaries in my vocation as a software engineer. I was forced to fire an employee because of a toxic manager in another department, and when I couldn’t change the outcome, I left that horrid company shortly thereafter. I did avoid badmouthing them, for the most part, but I will say, you can have a beautiful office space, but if you don’t curb toxicity in your senior leadership, you will suck to work for.
My relationship to this midrash now is different. I see complacency (yes, Reform, I know you have it in your siddur), deference to axiom and authority as idols. Someone kindly described me as one of the most intentional people they’ve ever met, and I’d like to believe that’s a condition of not surrendering to any kind of norm. I’d like to believe that being intentional is another word for someone who smashes the idols of conformity and looks to think hard about every meaningful course of action. Not paralytically so, of course.
Our default settings are idols. Political tribalism is an idol. Turning anything into a fetish is an idol.
And I want to continually smash those things in my life.
I often believe this was the Divine intention at Sinai, to create a nation of critical thinkers who with Divine guidance, seek to find the answers here on earth. Abraham set the pattern and brought himself to the attention of God.
It’s not a recipe for happiness. I am often dissatisfied with the things around me. That’s a positive. It means I want change. It means I work towards change. It means I take risks in the pursuit of change. At no point have any of the patriarchs or matriarchs who sought to be closer to God had it easy.
Happiness is not the goal. “Do not stand idly by” carries a lot of ugly potential. Doing the right thing is not smiles and rainbows.
Smash an idol. Be an iconoclast.