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Idolators - 400 Years

September 9, 2012 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Life is a continuous process toward self-discovery. It is never too late.

Abraham's Legacy

Originally, our ancestors were idol worshipers. But now God has brought us near to His service, as it is written: "And Joshua said to all the people: Thus says the Almighty God of Israel: 'In days of old, your ancestors dwelt on the other side of the (Euphrates) River. Terach (was) the father of Abraham and the father of Nachor, and they worshiped other gods...

Abraham lived in a world steeped in idolatry. Idolatry is a counterfeit attempt to satisfy the basic human need to connect to a dimension beyond ourselves. For some, this means carving a statue of Buddha; for others, it's owning a new Mercedes. During Abraham's time, everyone had an idol.

Abraham's discovery is all the more remarkable given that his family owned and operated a successful idol store (Idols 'R Us?). One day, when Abraham was asked to watch the store, he took a hammer and smashed all the idols - except for the largest. His father came home aghast. "What happened?!" he shouted. "It was amazing, Dad," replied Abraham. "The idols all got into a fight and the biggest idol won!" There was no way for his father to respond; deep down he knew that Abraham had tuned into a deeper truth.

Abraham continued his effort to convince others. He brought guests into his tent, which was open on all four sides and pitched right in the middle of an inter-city highway. Abraham also authored a 400-chapter book refuting idolatry. And he endured all types of mockery and persecution for holding beliefs that were, to say the least, politically incorrect. Nimrod, as the most powerful world leader of the time, was the one most threatened by Abraham's ideas of a supreme God. So Nimrod threw Abraham into a fiery furnace, saying "Let's see your God save you now." Abraham emerged unscathed.

In fact, the Torah calls him Avraham Ha-Ivri - Abraham the Hebrew. Ha-Ivri translates literally as "the one who stands on the other side." The entire world stood on one side, with Abraham standing firm on the other. This is what the Haggadah means: "I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river."

What was the secret of Abraham's incredible strength? God appears to Abraham and commands him: "Go to yourself (Lech Lecha) ― away from your country, your relatives, and your father's house." God is telling Abraham that in order to become truly great, he must "cut the umbilical chord" (so to speak), and embark on a journey of growth and self-discovery ― away from the familiar routine.

We get stuck in a rut of peer pressure. Old friends. Old habits. Overbearing parents. The first question each of us must ask is: Where does my "life philosophy" stem from? It is essentially a Greek approach to life? Roman? Eastern? Jewish? Try asking yourself the following question: "If I had been born into a family of Muslim fundamentalists in Iran, what would I be doing with my life today?" Because if you don't ask this question, then chances are quite good that today you'd still be a Muslim fundamentalist!

Everyone has to go through this process. There are no exceptions. A famous rabbi once revealed to me the secret of his greatness. He said: "My grandfather founded one of the biggest yeshivas of modern time. And my father succeeded him as head of the yeshiva. Growing up, I was surrounded by the very best that Judaism could offer. I studied with top scholars, I had access to immense libraries of Torah books, and I grew up in a home that was the center of Jewish communal life. I had it all. But at the same time, I felt like it wasn't mine. I had been given it, but I hadn't acquired it."

He continued: "So when I was 18, I made a decision to undergo a thorough process of self-examination. I took all of Jewish thought and practice, and emptied myself of it ― metaphorically. I did not stop observing the mitzvot. But intellectually, I put everything on the table so I could look at it. I looked at Shabbos, for example, and asked myself: What is this? How do I relate to it? What aspects do I appreciate, and which aspects don't I understand?"

He continued: "I needed to grow up and become my own person. I repeated this process with all realms of Torah. It took years. But now I know who I am, and more importantly, why."

We all sense the need to go through such a process. The Hebrew word for "life" ― chaim ― always appears in the plural form. This is because life is a continuous process toward self-discovery. It is never too late. And now is the time.

Making the Choice

Rabbi Tom Meyer

Originally, our ancestors were idol worshipers... And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river, and I led him throughout the land of Canaan. I multiplied his descendents, and I gave to him Isaac. And to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esav. And to Esav, I gave Mount Seir as a possession. And Jacob and his children went down to Egypt (Joshua 24:2-4).

The Haggadah now goes through the history of the Jewish people. The purpose is to understand how to teach our children, because the Seder is primarily to help our children choose to become caring, committed Jews.

Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esav. "To Esav, I gave Mount Seir as a possession... And Jacob and his children went down to Egypt."

This verse sums up two completely different life attitudes. Esav had two Jewish parents and didn't want to be a Jew. Why didn't he want to be Jewish? Because it was known (from the prophecy of Abraham) that the Jews would suffer terrible exiles and slavery. Esav simply didn't want to have to go through the vicissitudes of Jewish history. All he wanted was power ― a piece of land. So God says, "OK, I'll pay you off now. Take this portion of Jordan." As the Haggadah says, "I gave him a possession." That's what he wanted and that's what he got. End of Esav.

Jacob said, "I want to be Jewish. I'll take the responsibility of the chosen people, of bearing the standard of morality. Even if that means heading down to Egypt into something terrible." Why would anybody be so crazy as to choose anti-Semitism?

When I was growing up, I was always given two messages. First, you're going to be a Jew whether you like it or not because of anti-Semitism. And second, you must marry a Jew, you cannot intermarry. Neither of these are extremely appealing ideas because they're both negatives. You're not telling me why I should want to be a Jew.

How do we explain to our children that even though you know there is anti-Semitism out there, you still should choose to be Jewish? Well, that's what the Haggadah spends the next few pages dealing with...

Craving the Ultimate

Rabbi Stephen Baars

What difference does it make to me that my fathers were idol worshippers any more than if they were cannibals or even Torah scholars?

What the Haggadah is telling us is that genealogy is a reality. A certain part of each person is somehow connected to where he came from. I am not solely a product of my own efforts, but I am also a conglomeration of 3,500 years of heritage and character molding. Our ideas, values and drives are all rooted in our ancestry, our spiritual DNA. Therefore, imagine the immense damage we do to ourselves when we try to dissociate ― either consciously or out of ignorance ― from the Jewish roots which are the life force and soul of a Jew's being.

If this is true, then "God bringing us near" mentioned above is a reality that changed not only our ancestor's nature, but ours as well. Previously, they were idol worshipers and now they are not. So too, we are not. A Jew can pretend to be distant and non-believing. But it is only a pretense.

In reality, all Jews live as though they believe in God. Even when we spout atheism, we do it as though it were meaningful and that ultimately it will produce the greatest good. Also when we are suffering, we look to the future as though to pray for better times to come. "It will get better," "faith in humanity," "destiny," "the brotherhood of mankind," "universalism," "truth," "peace," "nature," etc., etc. These are all Godly concepts ― and even in a secular context are nevertheless worshipped like God, believed in like God, sacrificed to like God, and sometimes even died for like God.

It is from these 'gods' which we seek salvation and comfort. They are for us gods, with a more convenient, less imposing and, more importantly, less threatening title. In other words, we live for a relationship with God. We crave the meaning of something important and purposeful. (God created us that way!) So we invent philosophies and movements expressing the concept of God ― while at the same time trying to deny His real existence.

Ultimate freedom, however, can never be found in denial. To experience true freedom, we have to seek out the authentic version of the values and meaning for which we so desperately long.

Covenant Between the Parts

Rabbi Shraga Simmons

He said to Avram: Know for certain that your descendants will be a stranger in a land that is not theirs. They will serve them and be afflicted by them for 400 years. But I will punish the nation which they serve, and after that (your descendants) will go out with great wealth. (Genesis 15:13-14)

It is amazing that for an event as significant as the "Covenant Between the Parts," many Jews have never even heard of it!

The story takes place in Genesis (ch. 15), as God makes His eternal promise to give Abraham's descendants the Land of Israel, to make them as the stars in the sky, and to never forsake them.

It is then that Abraham questions God's promise. "How do I know it will happen?" he asks.

Because of this statement, God sees that Abraham's "spiritual DNA" contains, to some degree, a flaw. The rectification of this flaw is for Abraham's descendents to go into slavery in Egypt, where they will attain a high degree of reliance and trust in God. So God declares: "Know for certain that your descendants... will be afflicted for 400 years."

At this crucial moment of covenant, the seeds of Egyptian slavery ― and ultimate redemption ― are sown.

Exile and Reunion

Rabbi Stephen Baars

Blessed be He Who keeps His promise to Israel, blessed be He. For the Holy One, blessed be He, calculated the end of the exile to do according to what He said to our father Abraham at the "Covenant Between the Parts," as it says: "He said to Avram: Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs. They will serve them and be afflicted by them for 400 years. But I will punish the nation which they serve, and after that (your descendants) will go out with great wealth." (Genesis 15:13-14)

This paragraph is quite difficult to understand: Why are we blessing God for keeping His promise to afflict us? And even if you say: "Look at all the wealth we attained at the end!" it still doesn't seem to justify all those years of harsh slavery.

The answer is found in a parable. There once was a king who had only one son, who was of course very precious to him. One day the king and son had a terrible argument. The son stormed out of the palace vowing never to speak to his father again. For many years, the king mourned the loss of his son. He searched his vast empire for him, but he was nowhere to be found. "Surely," the king thought, "my son is hiding from me."

One day, the king was travelling to a distant part of his empire. On the way, he stopped at a lake, where in the distance he saw a young man on a small fishing boat. Soon a fish started to pull on his line. It was a large fish and pulled so hard that the man lost his balance and fell into the lake. His foot got caught in some reeds and he began to drown. He cried for help and the king jumped in to save him. As he approached, he recognized that it was his son. The king pulled his son out of the lake and began to revive him.

The young man was in a daze and did not realize who had saved him. As he regained consciousness, he profusely thanked and praised his rescuer. With eternal gratitude, he vowed to forever be the king's loyal servant, and to do whatever the king so desired.

The king and his son always remembered this milestone incident. It was inscribed and passed down to future generations.

This story is like the Exodus. It was through the entire Egyptian experience ― both the suffering and the joy ― that the Jews became God's people. Other events may have been "pleasant," but without this experience, no Jewish people would have been formed. Through this, God and the Jewish nation became welded together.

Part of emotional freedom is the ability to see beyond any present pain and suffering ― and look to the long-term impact on our lives.

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