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Lekh Lekha | Avraham's Two Wars

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Translated by Kaeren Fish



We usually think of Avraham as waging a battle against paganism and shattering idols, as described in the well-known midrash. Until he began his campaign, the world was filled with idolatry, as the Rambam describes in the opening chapter of Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim:


“In the days of Enosh people made a great mistake and the wise men of the generation spoke foolishness, and Enosh himself was among those who were misled. And this was their mistake: they said, ‘Since God created these stars and orbs to direct the world, and placed them on high, and bestowed honor upon them, and they are officers that serve Him, it is proper to praise them and to glorify them and to give them honor. For it is the will of God, blessed be He, that we magnify and honor whoever He has magnified and honored, just as a king desires to honor those who serve Him, since this is honor of the king.’ Since they thought this up, they began to build temples to the stars and to offer sacrifices to them and to praise them and glorify them with words and to prostrate themselves before them, in order to obtain God’s favor according to their mistaken views, and this was the essence of idolatry. This was what the worshippers, who knew its essence, said; they did not claim, ‘There is no god except for this star.’

After much time there arose among the people false prophets, who said that God had commanded and told them, ‘Worship such-and-such star,’ or ‘all the stars,’ and offer sacrifices to it and such-and-such libation offerings, and build a temple to it and create its likeness, in order to bow down before it – all the people, the women, the children, and the other peoples of the land.’ And [the false prophet] would tell them some form that he had thought up himself, and would say, ‘This is the form of the star so-and-so,’ concerning which he had told them in his ‘prophecy.’ And in this way they began creating likenesses in the temples and under the trees and at the tops of the mountains and upon the hills, and they would gather together and prostrate themselves before them. And they would tell all the people that ‘This likeness performs good or evil, and it is therefore proper to serve it and to fear it.’ And the priests would tell them, ‘Through this service you will multiply and prosper; and do such-and-such, and do not do such-and-such.’

And other false prophets began to arise and to claim that the star itself, or the orb, or angel, had spoken with them and told them, ‘Serve me in such-and-such a way,’ and had told them the way to serve them, and ‘do this and do not do that.’ And this phenomenon spread throughout the world – to serve the likenesses with various rituals, and to offer them sacrifices, and to bow down. And as time went by, the Name of God was forgotten from all of Creation and from their consciousness, and they did not know Him. All the people of the land, the women, and the children, knew only the likeness of wood or of stone, and the temple of stone, for they had been taught since childhood to bow down to it and to serve it and to swear in its name. And the wise men among them, such as their priests and the suchlike, pretended that there was no God, only the stars and orbs, which the likenesses were meant to represent. As for the Rock of the Universe, there was no one who acknowledged Him and knew Him, except for certain individuals in the world, such as Chanokh and Metushelach, Noach, Shem and Ever. And in this way the world continued until the birth of the pillar of the world – Avraham Avinu.”


Rambam’s description seems to stand in contradiction to what we know from parashat Noach, where we find two generations whose sin was not idolatry.


The generation of the Flood, as we know, sinned through “hamas,” theft and violence. People reverted to the level of animals, losing their Divine image. Their naturalistic worldview, glorifying a “natural” lifestyle directed by the laws of the jungle, was guided by the principle that “might makes right.”


The sin of the “generation of schism,” i.e. of the Tower of Bavel, was quite different. Although there is an opinion cited in the Gemara that this generation did commit the sin of idolatry, the literal text – as well as other opinions in the Gemara – suggest that their sin was their aspiration for greatness, their attempts in the direction of scientific progress which led them to arrogance and non-recognition of God.


What is common to these two generations is their lack of any regard for the transcendental realm. In both cases there was no acknowledgment of God, whether out of a naturalistic worldview (as in the generation of the Flood) or out of arrogance and an aspiration for greatness (as in the generation of the schism). The generation of the Flood viewed man as simply part of nature, such that there was no room for human acknowledgment and worship of God. The generation of the schism, on the other hand, viewed man as absolutely supreme, with no higher authority – and therefore did not recognize God.


Idolatry, as abominable as it is, at least recognizes the transcendental. Amongst pagans there is awe and fear of their gods. In their fear they seek something – anything, even in the form of wood and stone – that they can grasp for protection from the transcendental.


Avraham fought not only against idolatry, which was prevalent in his generation, but also – even more so – against these forms of atheism.


Yishayahu declares, “Hear me, those who pursue justice, those who seek God. Look to the rock from whence you are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from which you were dug out. Look to Avraham, your patriarch, and to Sara, who bore you, for he was alone when I called him, and I blessed him and multiplied him” (51:1).


On one hand, the prophet addresses “those who pursue justice” – the people who seek justice and social order, opponents of the naturalistic worldview of the generation of the Flood. On the other hand, he is also talking to “those who seek God” – opponents of the worldview of the generation of schism, the generation of Godless science.


Continuing his description of the development of monotheism, the Rambam continues:


“Once this mighty one (Avraham) was weaned, he began to think about things. As young as he was, he began thinking day and night, and wondered how it could be possible that the world continues to exist if it has no one directing it and moving it, for it is impossible that it moves itself. He had no one to teach him, nor any source of information, but was mired in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters. His father and mother and everyone around him worshipped idols, and he along with them, while his heart wondered and deduced until he arrived at the path of truth, and understood the right path, out of his correct discernment, and knew that there is One God, and that He directs the world, and that He created everything, and that in all of Creation there is no God but Him.”


Starting out among the idolaters, Avraham arrives at recognition of God. It is only out of their worldview which recognizes the transcendental realm that Avraham could come to know the Supreme God. Only on the basis of that initial openness to the Divine could Avraham arrive at the path of truth, rather than out of the prior worldviews which denied God’s existence.



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