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Spiritual Liberation: Rav's Pesach Story •
IntroductionRav's Story of Spiritual LiberationAlienation From OurselvesAbraham the IconoclastJews-By-ChoiceAbraham Discovers GodThe Idol SalesmanThe Broken IdolsA Debate — Is Abram a Wicked ChildA Rabbi's Memoir of Berlin, 1933-1937

Rav's Pesach Story:
From Serving Idols to Spiritual Liberation

1. As we noted above, the Haggadah offers two versions of the Exodus story. The Talmudic Rabbi, Shmuel, emphasized political enslavement (“We were slaves in Egypt”). Now we turn to his colleague, Rav, to hear about spiritual servitude.
     2. Rav’s version is drawn from Joshua's farewell speech to the nation of Israel. Joshua feared that the new Israelis might assimilate to the local pagan cultures. So he told them the story of Abraham’s liberation from idolatry.

Rav's Story of Spiritual Liberation
RAV'S STORY states that our ancestors were idol worshippers. Abraham’s father was an idol worshipper, of course. But we wonder: “What are you talking about? Who needs to know on Pesach whether my ancestors were idol worshippers?” I always wonder to myself, “What fools! Who would want to worship sticks and stones.” To make sense of Terach’s faith and of Abraham’s religious revolt, I have to tell my children about the appeal, the seduction of idolatry, avodah zarah (strange worship). They have to be told about their great grandfather who began in idolatry and who discovered a liberating worship.
     They must discover Abraham’s childhood, and must grasp the lonely man of faith, Abraham ha-ivri. The midrash says that ‘ivri’ (“Hebrew”, also “side”) means that the whole world was on one side and Abraham was on the other, alone. The child must learn the pain of loneliness that the convert has to bear. This is the story for Rav.
     Abraham’s conversion is an act of freedom. Jewish identity is saturated with freedom. Passover does not introduce a racist ethnic tribe; it brings to the fore a covenantal people of choice. “Are you prepared to listen how your grandfather was alone and struggled against false beliefs?” That is what the home has to say. After the child is told, then there can be a free embracing of who one is. That is the significance of singing Hallel on Passover night. Here is a singing towards personal identity. One rejoices at this self-definition: “I am a ger, a convert. I am who I am out of conviction. I am free and I choose to praise the Lord who liberated me.”
(David Hartman, Jerusalem philosopher)

Alienation From Ourselves
THE DIFFERENCE between the slave and the free person is not merely one of social class, that the slave just happens to be enslaved to another, and the free person is not enslaved. One can find a cultured and learned slave whose spirit is filled with freedom, and conversely, a “free” person whose spirit is that of a slave. Real freedom is that noble spirit by which the individual and indeed the whole people are elevated to become loyal to their inner essential self, to the image of God within them. Through this characteristic they can perceive their lives as purposeful and worthy of value.
     This is not true regarding people with the spirit of a slave – the content of their lives and their feelings are never attuned to the characteristics of their essential self, but rather to what is considered beautiful and good by the others. They are ruled by all sorts of constraints, whether they be formal or moral.
(Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel, 1921-1935)

Abraham the Iconoclast
ICONOCLAST IS A WORD which has come almost unchanged from the Greek eikon (image) and klastes (a breaker). Literally one who shatters sacred images, it has come to mean anyone who scoffs at our treasured beliefs.
     The spiritual liberation from false gods begins, according to Rabbinic interpretation, with Abraham’s critical search for truth. It culminates in a full scale rebellion against his own father, Terach the idol maker. The struggle for truth can threaten family solidarity and undermine tradition, yet it is still a value to be cherished, especially on Pesach.

Abraham and Sarah were Jews-by-choice who as mature adults made daring spiritual choices. Today many of us are really Jews-by-choice (whether as converts or as born Jews). For we continuously reflect on our life choices. To be a contemporary Jew requires a positive decision about what kind of a Jew to be and how central Judaism will be in our daily lives. Ask several people to share their personal journey as Jews. What choices and what ongoing hesitations shape their relationship to Judaism?

Abraham Discovers God
A Rabbinuc Children's Story
Long, long ago it was generally agreed that the gods were the heavenly lights – the sun, the moon, and the stars. For example, in the days of the Exodus Pharaoh believed in the sun god Ra and he bore the name Ra-meses – son of Ra. Idols of clay and wood were fashioned to embody the power of the heavenly lights. No one dared to disagree.
In those days in the city of Ur in Babylonia (today’s Iraq) there lived a man named Terach, who was a skilled idol maker. His family prospered by selling these gods in the market.
Yet Terach’s oldest son, Abram (later to be called Abraham), did not follow in his father’s footsteps. From an early age Abram took nothing of his father’s tradition for granted. Perhaps he was too inquisitive, too much an independent thinker. Terach considered Abram a rebellious son and worried that nothing good would come of him.
Once little Abram began to wonder: “Who really created the sky and the earth and me? Seeing the brilliance of the warm sun he worshipped it all day. But when the burning sun set in the west and the cool moon rose in the east surrounded by a thousand twinkling stars, he thought, “I must have been mistaken about the sun. It must be the moon with all its ministers – one for every nation on earth – that created the sky and the earth and me.” All night long he worshipped the moon. However Abram was perplexed when next morning the cool moon set and all his servants disappeared and the burning sun rose again. “How” he wondered, “can either the sun or the moon be the supreme creator? Each is eclipsed in turn by the other!” Abram concluded that God was beyond all the physical forces, the Creator of all these processes. So he resolved in his heart to worship this invisible God alone.   top

The Idol Salesman
ONCE ABRAM'S FATHER, Terach, asked him to take over the idol shop in the market. Perhaps he hoped Abram would take an interest in the family business. An experienced soldier came to buy an idol to protect his new home.
      Soldier: “Do you have a good idol ?”
      Abram: “What kind of god?”
      Soldier: “Well, since I am a great soldier, give me a god like myself.” Abram gave him the fiercest looking idol in the shop and the soldier paid full price.
      Soldier: “By the way, are you sure this god is as fierce as I am?”
      The lad could not contain himself.
      Abram: “How old are you?”
      Soldier: “I am fifty years of age, and have been a soldier for more than thirty years,” was the answer.
      Abram laughed: “You are fifty, whereas this idol was carved by my father only last week. And though you are a seasoned warrior, you seek protection from it!” Startled, the man took his money back and left the idol in the shop.
      An old woman entered next: “My house has been robbed, and my god was stolen from me. Sell me another,” she said, putting the money on the counter.
Abram smiled: “Your idol could not protect even himself, yet you wish to buy another!” The woman retrieved her money and ran out angrily.   top

The Broken Idols
THE REST OF Terach’s children ran to their father: “Abram will never make a salesperson. Let’s make him a priest.”
     Abram asked: “What does a priest do?”
     Terach’s sons: “He stands before the gods serving them, washing them, and feeding them.” Though doubtful, Abram agreed to try.
     Abram prepared some tasty food and drink and told the gods: “Please help yourselves, take something to eat, take a drink, and please be good to the people who are giving you these gifts.”
    However, not one of the gods took any of his dinner. Abram began to make fun of the idols.
    “They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear; noses, but cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot touch; feet, but cannot walk; they can make no sound in their throats. Those who fashion them, all who trust in them, shall become like them.” (Psalm 115: 5-8)
     Then he took a stick and smashed every idol except the largest one. Carefully he placed the stick, like a scepter, in the hand of the remaining idol and placed the food before him.
     When Terach arrived he was shocked: “Who did this to our gods?”
     Abram: “It was unbelieveable! I brought the food offering to them as usual. Then one god insisted: ”Me, first.“ Another responded angrily: ”No, me first!“ Finally the biggest of them took his staff, smashed the rest and took the offering all for himself.
     Terach stared at his first born Abram in disbelief and rage: ”What kind of a joke is this? Don’t mock me! None of these gods have the power you attributed to him.“
     Then Abram reasoned gently with his father: ”Please, just let your ears hear what your mouth just said.“
(Freely adapted from Philo, Maimonides, Nachmanides and Rabbinic midrashim)

A Debate — "Is Abram A Wicked Child?"
After reading our adaptation of the Rabbinic story of young Abraham you may wish to stage a short debate. Divide the table down the middle into roughly equal constituencies, arbitrarily assigning the role of pro and con to debate the following proposition: “Abraham is a rebellious son whose outrageous treatment of his parents’ and his society’s most cherished beliefs should be censured.” Begin with one short “pro”-statement, then shift back and forth between pro and con sides of the table for 5 minutes.
     At the end put the question to a vote.

A Rabbi's Memoir of Berlin, 1933-1937
Rabbi Joachim Prinz recalls that in Nazi Germany Jewish holidays assumed a new importance:
     “No longer were they perfunctory observances of the day. They became part of the context of danger, fear, death and hope in which we lived. Passover was now the great day of hope for delivery from our own Egypt. The whips which beat the naked bodies of Jewish slaves in Egypt were the very same that struck our bodies. Slavery was no longer an abstract term, foreign to the world of the twentieth century. We could now identify with the slaves for we, ourselves, were third-class citizens, and therefore slaves. Those people who had been taken from their homes and whom we no longer saw, but about whose fate we knew, illustrated the Haggadah in colors much more telling than those of the most graphic illustrations we had ever seen.
     “The Passover slogan, ‘From slavery unto freedom ’, became the song of our lives. If the slaves of Egypt could be delivered from their fate, so would we. All the songs at the seder table were sung with new emphasis and new meaning and great religious fervor. When we read that ‘in every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt’ and ‘it was not only our ancestors whom God set free from slavery,’ the identification was complete. It was not historic memory. It was not history at all. It was the reality of every day and the hope of every person. Some day, we said, we shall be free.
     But the greatest identification came when we read: “Not merely one persecutor has stood up against us, but in every generation they persecuted us to destroy us, but the Holy One blessed be He saved us from their hands.” What more did we want? How much deeper could Jewish identification with the people go? Here it was. The persecution was upon us. But some day we would be saved.
     (I did not then know that I was later to sing “We shall overcome some day” with Martin Luther King. But when I did, I remembered the songs of the seder table under the Hitler regime).   top