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In a prelude to this week’s Torah portion of Lech Licha, the medrish Pirkei DiRebbe Eliezer (chapter 26) depicts Avraham’s abusive childhood, including two out of the ten tests which took place before he was told by Hashem to move to the Land of Canaan. The first test was when Avraham was born; all the government leaders wanted to murder him, and he was hidden underground for 13 years, where he didn’t see the sun or moon. After 13 years he came out speaking Lashon Hakodesh (Hebrew), rejecting and disgusted by any idols or gods, and believing in The Creator, saying “The G-D of Legions, happy is the man who believes in You.” Medrashim say the first realization Avraham had of Hashem was from the age of 3. The second test listed in the Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer was him being thrown in jail by his father for ten years and then being thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nimrod, from which he was saved by Hashem. The Biur Maspik points out that this story is discussed in more detail in Breishis Rabba parsha 38, where it begins with the famed story of Avraham breaking idols as a child, which means, according to the Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer, that he was 13 at the time. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Medrish Rabba, as explained by the Matnos Kehuna, says that Terach, Avraham’s father, was an idol maker. One time he stepped out of the shop and left Avraham in charge. A man came in and asked to buy some idols. Avraham asked him how old he was and he either responded he was 50 or 60 years old. Avraham said back, “Woe is to this man who is already 60 years old and wants to bow down to an idol which is only a day old.” The man walked out humiliated. Another time a woman came carrying a big plate of fine flour and she told Avraham, “Take this and give it as a gift to these idols.” Avraham got up, took a staff and broke all the idols besides the biggest one and put the staff in its hand. When his father came back, he asked who did this. Avraham answered, “Why should I deny anything from you? A woman came carrying a tray of flour and told me take this and give it to the gods.” Avraham told his father “I brought it before the idols and this idol said I should eat first, and another one said I want to eat first, the biggest idol got up and smashed all the other idols with this staff.” His father said back, “Why are you mocking and playing around with me, do the idols really know how to think, speak, and move?” Avraham responded to his father, “Are your ears listening to what your mouth is saying?” Terach then took Avraham and brought him to King Nimrod. Nimrod said to Avraham, “If you won’t bow down to these idols then bow to fire.” Avraham said back to Nimrod, “If that is the case then I should bow down to water that could put out fire.” Nimrod said, “So bow down to water!” Avraham retorted, “If so then I should bow down to the clouds that hold the water.” Nimrod responded, “So bow down to the clouds!” Avraham said back, “Then I should bow down to the wind which disperses the clouds.” Nimrod responded, “So bow down to the wind.” Avraham responded, “I might as well bow down to a person who is full of holes and the wind stays inside him,” (which the Matnos Kehuna said would apply to all living things on the ground.) Nimrod lashed back, “You are talking gibberish, I only bow down to fire. I will throw you inside it, and your G-D that you bow down to should save you from it!” The rest is history, Avraham was saved and his brother Haran said “I will follow suite”, but was wishy washy in his belief in Hashem, so Hashem let him walk out alive for sacrificing himself last Kiddush Hashem but he soon died in the hands of Terach because his innards were burnt up for not being totally committed to Hashem, as the Maharz”u explains. Avraham eventually collected a lot of followers and moved to Eretz Canaan upon Hashem’s command, which is where the beginning of this week’s Torah portion starts. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Rashi emphasizes that Avraham’s father was very upset that Avraham was making fun of him and joking around. How can Avraham Avinu, the model for the Jewish people, a person of perfection, who passed every test Hashem gave him with flying colors with a 100%, no imperfections, yet in order to prove his devotion to Hashem he used the attribute of leitzanus/scoffing which the Pele Yoetz, in the chapter of leitzanus/scoffing warns about “the known severity of the sin” to the point that they say in the beginning people have much suffering and in the end are totally destroyed because of this trait, and similarly, many types of terrible things are explained by the Holy Rabbis which come about to a scoffer. In fact, Avraham suffered 10 years in prison for making fun of his father and was almost burned to death for joking around with the king, if not for the fact that Hashem saved him. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
How can Avraham have acted in such a despicable matter to his own father who he is obligated to respect, and to a king, who also by definition deserves respect, naturally. Chazal say Moshe showed respect towards Pharaoh. each time he confronted Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go because of the natural respect a leader of that fashion deserves, whether he is evil or not!? Even if Avraham had a right to rebuke the customers, his father, and the king for their idolatrous ways, why do it in that fashion, which is known to be such a demeaning character flaw? Indeed, why did it not taint, albeit on a microscopic level, the passing of the second test Hashem gave him of being thrown into the fiery furnace?
It must be that using the character trait of scoffing was not an issue, even one iota. And even though he went through suffering and was almost killed, that was not a punishment for the way he acted but cause and effect for that type of behavior and the very fact that Hashem miraculously saved him is in fact the proof that what he did was not wrong in any sort of way.
There are times when a character trait like scoffing is most likely a negative trait, with very severe ramifications. But there are also times when the same trait can and should be used, and is proper to be used, as in this circumstance by such a terrible sin as idolatry. Especially since they are convincing him to give in to the practice as the king tried submitting him to do. It does not matter who the person is, or if you embarrass him in public, such a heinous crime against Hashem deserves tactics of belittling and disrespect, on the contrary by Avraham using such creativity and wit showed his utmost dedication to Hashem and for that reason he passed the test with flying colors.