From Serving Idols to Spiritual Liberation
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. Ravs 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 Abrahams liberation from idolatry.
Story of Spiritual Liberation
STORY states that our ancestors were idol worshippers. Abrahams
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 Terachs
faith and of Abrahams 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
Abrahams 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.
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)
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
(Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi
in Israel, 1921-1935)
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 Abrahams
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
Rabbinuc Children's Story
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.
those days in the city of Ur in Babylonia (todays Iraq) there lived
a man named Terach, who was a skilled idol maker. His family prospered
by selling these gods in the market.
Yet Terachs oldest son, Abram (later to be called Abraham), did
not follow in his fathers footsteps. From an early age Abram took
nothing of his fathers 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.
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.
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.
you have a good idol ?
kind of god?
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.
the way, are you sure this god is as fierce as I am?
The lad could not
old are you?
am fifty years of age, and have been a soldier for more than thirty years,
was the answer.
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
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.
smiled: Your idol could not protect even himself, yet you wish to
buy another! The woman retrieved her money and ran out angrily.
REST OF Terachs children ran to their father: Abram will never
make a salesperson. Lets make him a priest.
What does a priest do?
He stands before the gods serving them, washing them, and feeding
them. Though doubtful, Abram agreed to try.
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?
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.
at his first born Abram in disbelief and rage: What kind of a joke
is this? Dont mock me! None of these gods have the power you attributed
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)
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 societys 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.
Rabbi's Memoir of Berlin, 1933-1937
Joachim Prinz recalls that in Nazi Germany Jewish holidays assumed a new
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.
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
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).