Torah Study

Nimrod – Self-Worship

Nimrod, son of Kush and descendant of Cham, was the first man to rule the world. He is featured in parashas Noach, as Nimrod and in Lech Lecha he is known as Amrafel. Nimrod rebelled against HaShem after the Great Flood and initiated the construction of the Tower of Bavel. He threw Avraham into the fiery furnace for his rejection of idolatry. And he was one of the four kings who conquered the five kings in the first war in history, until he was defeated by Avraham. He was killed by Esav.

One of the most nefarious characters in the Torah and rabbinic literature is Nimrod, the sworn enemy of Avraham Avinu and the man who led the ill-fated attempt to build the Tower of Babel. At first glance, Nimrod’s evil seems so great that we have nothing to learn from him. On deeper analysis, however, we can develop a more sophisticated understanding of where this powerful man went astray, and apply it to our own lives.

As ever, Chazal provide us with the clues to deepen our understanding: The Gemara in Chullin contrasts the righteous Jewish leaders with the most powerful non-Jewish rulers in the history of mankind. “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to Yisrael: I desire you because even when I make you great, you humble yourselves; I made Avraham great, and he said before Me, ‘I am dust and ashes’; Moshe and Aharon said, ‘What are we?’ David said, ‘I am a worm and not a man.’ But the idol worshippers are not like this. I made Nimrod great, and he said, ‘Let us build a city’….” Instead of thanking HaShem for his power, Nimrod led the building of the Tower of Bavel, an attempt to fight with Him for control of the world.

Furthermore, the Gemara in Chagigah derives the name Nimrod from the word mered, rebellion, for Nimrod sought to cause the world to rebel against HaShem. The Gemara then connects Nimrod with another mighty leader, Nevuchadnetzar, describing the latter as his descendant. Maharsha explains that they were not necessarily related, but both had the same attitude, “competing” with the Almighty. One final Chazal states simply that Nimrod set himself up as a deity and designated a place for his worship.

All these sources have a common theme. Nimrod was granted exceedingly great power, but instead of humbling himself he became arrogant, even rejecting the very source of his power, the One G-d, Whom Avraham Avinu had taught the world about. The logical extension of arrogance is self-deification, in which one considers himself a god, a powerful force for goodness (or evil).

Self-deification was itself a logical extension of the paganism prevalent for millennia. Idol worshippers, led by Nimrod, viewed the world simplistically. They saw that there were numerous sources of power, such as the sun, the rain, the Nile, etc., so they worshipped each, hoping it would provide what they needed.

The few people who attained great power, such as Nimrod, took this approach to its logical conclusion and believed that they themselves were a source of the world’s goodness Therefore they promoted worship of themselves. And therefore Nimrod was so antagonistic to Avraham Avinu’s monotheism, the belief that there is only One Source of all the powers in the world, including the sun, moon, and Nimrod himself! Nimrod could not accept this threat to his ego, so he fought to destroy Avraham and his G-d.

All of Nimrod’s actions were geared toward this goal. Chazal tell us that the one of the four kings who began the first war was none other than Nimrod himself, although the Torah calls him Amrafel. This name is a contraction of the words amar pol (he said, “Fall!”), referring to Nimrod’s throwing Avraham into the fiery furnace. Why does the Torah make this allusion in the context of a war that seems to have nothing to do with Avraham and his beliefs! Evidently, an essential aspect of Nimrod and his cohorts’ efforts at world conquest was the destruction of monotheism. They captured Lot just to draw Avraham into battle, so they could destroy him. Therefore, this war was rooted in Nimrod’s antipathy toward Avraham. Hence the Torah’s allusion to the incident of the fiery furnace  precisely in this context.

We have seen how Nimrod saw himself as a source of power and made many futile attempts to fight G-d and Avraham Avinu. He refused to attribute all his power to G-d and humble himself accordingly, as did the great Jewish leaders. Instead he became arrogant. What does all this have to do with us today? We are no longer drawn to worship idols. However, there is still a very strong temptation to attribute our success and happiness to sources other than HaKadosh Baruch Hu. That is a form of avodah zarah in and of itself, for it views other “powers” as independent sources of well-being. Included among such avodah zarahs are money, honor, power, and powerful people (such as one’s boss). Yet it seems that the most pernicious avodah zarah is worship of oneself, attributing one’s success to his own abilities and powers rather than to HaShem. This attitude is described by the Torah as “my strength and the might of my hand attained this wealth.” This is a greatly diluted form of what happened to Nimrod – HaShem gave him power, and he attributed it to himself. Whenever a person succeeds in something, he is liable to become arrogant and forget the source of his success.

It is essential that we strive to emulate Avraham, Moshe, Aharon, and David, who reacted correctly; the more they achieved, the humbler they became. Every new success gave them a deeper recognition of HaShem’s greatness in having given them so much. May we learn from our great leaders and realize that only HaShem is the source of goodness.


From the book “Beacons of Light”


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