Every year, several weeks before Passover, my personal search for leaven begins in a way that is more symbolic than actual. I approach my bookshelves where there are many books that have served their rising, yeasty purposes and are now fermented and frail beyond use. With each search, I take note of the year’s new decisions. One year I might decide to hold on to a particular book while the next Passover, for reasons too subtle to know, I’m able to part with that book, saying: “Whatever I need of you is now in me.”
I find this a soulful enterprise, a springtime version of Rosh Hashanah reflections about what I carry and what carries me forward.
This year, I honorably buried my 5th grade Hebrew School book that I redeemed from the dusty exile of a “nostalgia” shelf. When I realized that I could bring that volume into a timeless Passover conversation, it became clear that I could hold onto the book even as I let it go.
HaYehudi HaRishon (The First Jew), is a book of biblical and rabbinic stories about Abraham rewritten in easy Hebrew. One story recounted how Abraham, the young monotheist, smashed the idols in his father’s shop in order to prove the error of his father’s ways. The Passover Haggadah carries the biblical foundation of this story. As a preamble to reaffirming Israel’s covenant, Joshua traced the people’s history beginning with Abraham’s idol serving father, Terah:
Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers. But now, the Ever-Present One has drawn us to his service. As it says: Then Joshua said to all the people, Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: In olden times, your forefathers—Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor—lived beyond the river and served other gods (Joshua 24:2). (Passover Haggadah)
Here was the biblical kernel of the rabbinic story found in my an ancient midrash and in my 5th grade book—a story in which Abraham’s father was not only an idol worshipper, but an idol maker:
Terah was an idol maker. Once, he went away and put Abraham, his son in charge to sell in his place. It happened that a man came hoping to make a purchase and Abraham said to him: How old are you? He answered: fifty or sixty. To which Abraham responded: Woe to the one who is sixty years old and wants to worship something that is one day old! He became embarrassed and left. Once a woman came bearing a plate of fine flour. She said to him: Offer it before them. He took a club in his hand and broke the idols and put the club into the hand of the biggest of them. When his father returned he said to him: What have you done to them? Abraham replied: I can’t hide it from you. A woman came bearing a plate of fine flour and she said to me: Offer it to them. I offered it to them and this one said: I will eat first, while that one said: I will eat first. Then the biggest of them rose, took the club and broke all of the others. His father said to him: Why are you trying to fool me, do they know anything! Abraham responded: Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?!
For Joshua, Abraham’s father was an idol worshipper; he was not his son’s first convert. Abraham’s break with the past was radical and complete. Nevertheless, Joshua observed that despite father Abraham’s idol-breaking new faith, discarding idols was not an easy thing to do for his children and for theirs. Even now, Joshua must insist: Put away the alien gods that you have among you! (Josh 24:23).
Joshua held up Abraham’s father, Terah, not only as a witness to the past but as an urgent reminder that we still tend to hold on to our idols and icons. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, echoed Joshua’s observation and widened its implications:
We are all children of Abraham
but we are also grandchildren of Terah, Abraham’s father.
And now perhaps the time has come for the grandchildren to do
to their father what he did to his father
when he shattered his idols and his icons, his religion and his belief.
But even this will be the beginning of a new religion.
We should be mindful: The tradition of idol-breaking can become its own idol. Perhaps we have items on our shelves and in ourselves that have been in place long enough.