The Perils of Ambivalence

Approximately 4,000 years ago, our Patriarch, Abraham and his brother, Haran[i], faced a politically charged environment. If it is somewhat comparable to our contemporary political scene and atmosphere on the college campus, then it is another example of the popular saying that there is nothing new under the sun.

King Nimrod and his compatriots, in the ruling class of the era, were most interested in preserving their positions[ii]. After the Great Flood and the ever so brief renaissance of belief in the one and only true G-d under Noah, civilization had again declined. Mankind once again embraced idolatry with all of its excesses. Seeing the opportunity to bolster his authority, Nimrod formulated a narrative about his being a divinity and most people under his reign were taken in by this canard. He did this before there were Antifa, white supremacists, Communism, Fascism or Islamism. Nimrod, like his modern successors, used ideology or religion as a weapon in advancing a political agenda. There were those, who may not have fully believed in the ideology, Nevertheless, they were supportive because it expediently served their purposes, as members of the elites of the society. This included Abraham’s own father, Terah.

Is it any wonder that Nimrod reacted negatively to the challenge posed by Abraham to this prevailing ideology? According to the Midrash[iii], Nimrod’s concerns began even before Abraham was born. It seems Nimrod was a patron of astrology and determined that a boy would soon be born, who would stand up to him and successfully undermine his contrived authenticity. Nimrod was so distraught that his advisors counseled him to kill every male child born during the period in question, which would have included Abraham.

Amthalai[iv] was pregnant with Abraham, at the time. Determined to save her as yet unborn child, she left home and secreted herself in a cave, where she gave birth to Abraham. Abraham lived there for a few years until the danger passed.

Maimonides[v] reports that Abraham was a precocious child. He used his time well to observe the universe and ponder its majesty and complexity. He determined that the celestial bodies were perpetually in motion and revolved. He wondered how this could be unless there was a master, who made it function in this manner. Contrary to the popular culture at the time, he concluded that there could only be one true G-d, who created the universe and made it function as it did. The idolatrous practice of worship of the stars and images was erroneous and flawed. As Abraham matured and continued in his search for the truth, his knowledge and understanding deepened. He recognized the creator, G-d and, eventually, he was blessed with divine inspiration.

Abraham began to teach others the wisdom he had acquired in his personal journey of discovery. He was not content to accept things the way they were or stay silent as the world was being corrupted. People began to gather around him[vi]. He was approachable and everyone could ask him questions. He patiently explained his views until his interlocutors understood them. Listeners voluntarily embraced the truth of the concepts he related to them. Abraham’s approach was a powerful one. As Maimonides[vii] explains Abraham was the first to oppose the prevailing ideology of idolatry with cogent arguments, soft and persuasive speech and also by showing kindness to his fellow man. It was not only about the words he spoke; he also taught by his own personal example. He was gracious, hospitable, caring and kind[viii]. Maimonides[ix] describes how Abraham also communicated his lessons in writing. Tens of thousands of people became his adherents. Imagine if he had the communication tools of the Internet and social media at his disposal. Might he have used tweets, you-tube videos, podcasts, e-books and posts, as well as, cable and satellite television, in addition to live speaking engagements, in order most effectively to get out his message?

In any event, the governing elite took notice of the inroads he was making into the public’s consciousness. So too did his father, Terah, who was none to happy with the splash his son was making. Abraham was directly affecting his business as an idol-maker. The Midrash[x] describes how Terah left Abraham in charge of his idol-making shop one day. He confronted the customers who came in with their folly. He asked how old they were and when they replied 50 or 60 years of age, he would respond how could they worship something just made that day. They would be embarrassed and leave. Anther customer sought to sacrifice flour to the idols in the shop. Abraham took a club and shattered all the idols but the largest and placed the club in its hand. When his father returned, he related, tongue and cheek, the story of how all the idols fought with each other to be the one to eat the flour, first. The largest one rose, took a club and smashed all the others, in order to claim the privilege. His father replied that Abraham could not trick him with this tale. The idols, he noted, had no cognition. Abraham triumphantly responded, do your ears not hear what your mouth is saying? Abraham’s arguments and flair for the dramatic were, at once, straightforward, imaginative, powerful and convincing. He and his message were a genuine threat to the existing order. Terah was worried about repercussions. He was concerned about his own safety and that of his family. He turned in his own son, Abraham, into Nimrod.

There was another son in the household, Haran, who had begun to appreciate the truth of Abraham’s teachings. He was Abraham’s half-brother. He had a different mother[xi] than Abraham, but his father was also Terah. He was warming to Abraham’s new way of thinking; but he wasn’t yet at the point of coming out, publicly. He was a very good person[xii]. He may not have been at the majestic level of the most saintly Abraham, our Patriarch. Nevertheless, he was still good enough to merit being the progenitor of all four of the Matriarchs. His daughter was Sarah[xiii], the wife of Abraham. His great-granddaughter was Rebecca[xiv] the wife of Isaac. His great-great granddaughters[xv] were Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob. Unlike Abraham, who was confidant in his hard-fought convictions, Haran was still ambivalent. Nevertheless, he still did the right thing, as noted below.

Terah’s selling out of Abraham put Haran in harm’s way[xvi], too. Abraham and Haran were both about to face the ultimate challenge. It began with the trial of Abraham before the governing authorities, including Nimrod. He was asked to worship fire, one of the popular deities of the time. Abraham refused and explained that fire could not be the ultimate power because it could be extinguished with water. Nimrod then interjected, taking up the cause, personally and said then worship water. Abraham responded why not then the clouds, which provide water? Nimrod answered so be it, worship the clouds. Abraham continued to debate the point and asked then why not worship the winds, which scatter the clouds? Nimrod was not deterred by this line of reasoning and said then worship the winds. But then Abraham proceeded to unveil the potent argument at the very heart of the matter. He asked why not then worship humans, who are full of wind? Nimrod had no real response to Abraham’s logical presentation. In essence, the entire artifice of the idolatrous establishment created by Nimrod and the ruling class was designed so that the public would worship them. They wanted to be the highest power in the society, with everyone else subservient to them. How better to accomplish this goal than convincing everyone to worship something that the ruling class could control? Instead of everyone recognizing that they could be independent and self-sufficient, they were locked into an ideology, which made them subservient and beholden to a power controlled by the state. They were led to believe that their success was not the result of individual initiative. Instead, it was dependent on the whims of an image artificially created by just another man. Abraham demonstrated the folly of believing in something controlled by a mere mortal. A person did not need Nimrod or any intermediaries when it came to relating to the one true G-d. Each person could develop a personal relationship with G-d.

Nimrod, at a loss for words, responded that Abraham was just speaking words. He ended the debate by announcing he worshiped fire and he would throw Abraham into the fire. Where have we heard that kind of reply before? In the battle of ideas there must be freedom of expression and no duress. Locking down a public debate in order to prevent the public from hearing different points of views, which challenge the prevailing wisdom or lack thereof, is not the answer. Abraham respectfully asserted his position. He backed it up with a compelling analysis of the other side’s point of view. There was no browbeating or rhetoric designed to inflame people’s passions. Abraham advanced clear and convincing arguments and Nimrod had no answer. Nimrod resorted to the age-old response of shutting down the proceedings and threatening violence to silence the voices, which challenged his authority.

Abraham was miraculously saved[xvii] and escaped Nimrod’s clutches. As the Bible describes in this week’s reading[xviii], G-d commanded Abraham to leave[xix]. However, Haran did not fare as well.

The Midrash[xx] reports he was hidden in the crowd observing the debate between Abraham and Nimrod. Haran was of two minds. He thought if Abraham won the debate then he would say he was with Abraham. If, however, Nimrod were victorious, then he would say he was with Nimrod. He was ambivalent. Witnessing Abraham’s triumphant victory in the debate and his miraculous escape, when asked whom he supported, he declared he was with Abraham. He took a courageous stand and the governing authority responded by throwing him into the fire and killing him.

Not much has changed in the so-called modern world. Governments still assassinate or silence the opposition. There appear to be less and less opportunities for honest debate. Groupthink and passionate, often mindless, adherence to political slogans and ideology don’t invite challenges. There is a tendency to want to crush the opposition instead of allowing for a free exchange of ideas. All too often shouting is the preferred method of expression. It is too dangerous to allow the ideas themselves to win or lose the day; it is about overpowering the opposition. This seems to be the new pedagogical approach, instead of the Socratic method of questions and answers, in order to uncover the truth. Listening to the other point of view and answering to the point seems to be a lost art. It is easier just to talk past each other. Soaring rhetoric may be entertaining and tug at the heart, but it should not be a substitute for thoughtful conversation.

Beyond all this, though, is a most important lesson, which Haran manifested in his behavior. Despite his misgivings and ambivalence, he did the right thing. The Talmud[xxi] analyzes the matter of intentions. Of course, it’s better both to do the right the thing and have the proper intentions. However, short of that, doing good deeds, even without perfect intent is acceptable. This is because by continuing to do the right thing, as prescribed by the Torah, a person will ultimately come to do so with the proper intent.

There is a great deal of focus today on words and intentions and well there should be. Nevertheless, pious expressions of good intentions and virtue signaling are no substitute for just doing good deeds and not bad ones. Of course, as Abraham demonstrated, exemplary conduct and speaking softly, kindly, thoughtfully, endearingly and without rancor or threats, are the paradigm of refined and good behavior. However, if we can’t yet fully emulate his extraordinary example, let’s begin with doing no harm and performing good deeds. As the Midrash[xxii] instructs, G-d wants us to perform the Torah and do good deeds. G-d didn’t say just study or contemplate it.

Life is complex and who, among us, truly has perfect knowledge, discernment and judgment? Over the course of the years, I’ve become skeptical about those who purport to know all the answers. I am wary of and somewhat immune to the shouting of impassioned pleas, fiery speeches and slogans, designed to inflame the passions of the crowd. Why not calmly and quietly debate ideas? When someone refers to a narrative, I automatically think, fiction. How about marshaling the facts and making reasoned and convincing arguments? Why all the dramatics and rhetoric?

However, there are some things, which I’ve become more certain about, over the years. I firmly believe in G-d, studying the wisdom of the Torah and the sages and doing good deeds. I am so grateful to live in a wonderful country, which provides us with the freedom, economic opportunity and security to do these things in relative comfort.

Abraham miraculously escaped a country and regime that sought to repress and eliminate him. Despite the overwhelming challenges he encountered, he overcame them and brought light to the world. We are challenged to do no less in our time.

[i] Genesis 11:28.

[ii] See Bereishit Rabbah 38:13. See also Otzar HaMidrashim, Chapter on Avraham Avinu, at pages 2-3.

[iii] Ibid, Otzar HaMidrashim.

[iv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 91a.

[v] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avoda Zara 1:1.

[vi] Ibid, 1:3.

[vii] Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 29.

[viii] Genesis 18.

[ix] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avoda Zara 1:3.

[x] Bereishit Rabbah 38:13.

[xi] See Genesis 20:12 and Rashi thereon.

[xii] See the Chasam Sofer’s Torat Moshe, Volume 1 on Genesis, at the end of his commentary on Parshat Noach, at page 34.

[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Megillah, at page 14a and Sanhedrin, at page 69a.

[xiv]See Genesis 11:29, describing Milcah, the daughter of Haran, who, as detailed in Genesis 22:23, was the grandmother of Rebecca.

[xv] See Genesis 29. Leah and Rachel are the daughters of Lavan, Rebecca’s brother and a grandson of Milcah. Hence, they are the great-grand daughters of Milcah and great-great granddaughters of her father, Haran.

[xvi] See Rashi commentary on Genesis 11:28.

[xvii] The Bible does not expressly describe the nature of Abraham’s miraculous escape. Nachmanides, in his commentary on Genesis 11:28, notes it may have been a hidden miracle, such as inspiring the king to release him from prison, unharmed or a manifest one, of making Abraham immune to the fire, as described in Bereishit Rabbah 38:13. Interestingly, the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 91a, describes how Abraham was imprisoned for 10 years. The Rashbam, in his commentary on this Talmudic text, explains it may have been Nimrod, who imprisoned Abraham. This was presumably because of his refusal to worship idols as Nimrod required and his preaching against idolatry. The Rashbam also suggests another possibility that it was Terah who imprisoned him, because he destroyed the idols in Terah’s idol-making shop.

[xviii] Genesis 12:1.

[xix] Rashi, in his commentary on Genesis 12:1, notes that G-d did this for Abraham’s benefit and for his own good.

[xx] Bereishit Rabbah 38:13.

[xxi] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Pesachim (page 50a), Arachin (page 16b), Sanhedrin (page 105a) and Sota (pages 22b and 47a). See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:5 and Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 246:20.

[xxii] Devarim Rabbah 11:6.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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