"The purely righteous do not complain about evil but add righteousness; do not complain about heresy but add faith; do not complain about ignorance but add wisdom."
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook
Many leaders rise to power by virtue of being critics. They speak sharply and truthfully to the problems they see around them. The courage to speak truth to power often entitles them to have a position of power. There’s only one problem: future vision. It is not hard to articulate problems; it’s hard to fix them. Critics are a plenty. Visionaries are rare. Leaders are not complainers; they’re fixers. They, of course, have to have a firm handle on the nature of the problems they confront. But they are not content to observe a problem or merely articulate its particulars. For them, problems stimulate solutions.
Rabbi Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine and a friend to these pages, adds a beautiful spiritual dimension to moving beyond complaining. He adds that righteous people add pieces of themselves to compensate for whatever is lacking in the landscape before them. Instead of harping on what isn’t, they add a measure of what should be - righteousness, faith and wisdom to all that which they touch. They take problems and sanctify them, raise them, and reframe them.
This week, we meet the Torah’s first problem-solver: Abraham. Our founding father was actually himself found by God. In Genesis 12, God approaches Abraham and encourages him to break with his past and build a nation on uncertain ground. Historically, it was not unusual for people in the ancient Near East to be nomadic, wandering from place to place in search of food and water. God tells Abraham to solve the problem of wandering by creating something of beauty of permanence in one location. God, according to Martin Buber, was also solving a problem, that of a moral universe gone wrong. After creating a world and re-creating a world after the flood, human beings failed again in the Tower of Babel narrative. This time, in an attempt to create a better paradigm, God (and the text) moves from the universal to the particular and tries to grow a new world with a new leader.
In a powerful and well-known midrash (so well-known people mistakenly believe it actually appears in Genesis), Abraham critiques his father’s beliefs by breaking his idols and placing the hammer in the hands of the chief idol. Here, Abraham functions as a critic, one who sees the faults of a system and implodes them. But the Biblical text, instead ,prefers to paint Abraham as a visionary who partners with God in the creation of a people. He does not, Rabbi Kook’s words, complain about heresy but adds faith and wisdom and, in so doing, changes the world of faith as we know it.
This week, I came across an interesting "take" on the Abraham midrash. Family psychologist and writer, Dr. Brad Sachs sees Abraham’s idol-breaking as an act of differentiation, not dissimilar to that of an adolescent:
...adolescence is a stage in life during which it is crucial for children to begin to develop their own identity and to start differentiating themselves from us. We have not finished the job of parenting if we have not produced an autonomous, self-sufficient young adult, but the very nature of becoming autonomous and self-sufficient inevitably involves at least a partial repudiation of what we stand for – as the biblical Abraham heralded his adolescence by smashing his father’s idols, our children herald their adolescence by smashing our ideals.
It is true that to create the individuated self, children test the boundaries and limits of their parent’s ideologies, but ultimately, children cannot create a self that is only a reaction to what a parent is or isn’t. Children mature into adults who must create their own future visions. All of us emerge out of adolescence – a time of critique – with the challenge of creating our own path. For Abraham, the path was communal and not only personal. Breaking idols alone doesn’t create a faith. It only destroys the faith of another. Criticism never inspires. Visions of the future inspire. And Abraham gave us that future. Here we are.