What is the idolatry of today?
Table for Five: Behar-Behukotai
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
You shall not make idols for yourselves, nor shall you set up a statue or a monument for yourselves. And in your land you shall not place a pavement stone on which to prostrate yourselves, for I am the Lord, your God.
Rivkah Slonim, Rohr Chabad Center, Binghamton University
This verse, Rashi teaches, addresses the Jew indentured to a gentile owner who may erroneously believe that since he has providentially been put in this position, he, like his master, may engage in actions prohibited by the Torah. God therefore explicitly forbids him from making idols etc.
When the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe was arrested and exiled from his home for nurturing Jewish life in communist Russia, a crowd of Jews risked gathering at the train station to bid him farewell. In that momentous, parting talk, the Rebbe said: “… all the peoples of the earth should know that only our bodies were delivered into exile and servitude, not our souls. We must openly declare that concerning our religion, Torah, mitzvos, and Jewish customs, no one can tell us what to do…”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks related that, as a young university student, he came to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe with the intention of interviewing him. But the Rebbe switched roles on him asking him many questions about Jewish life in Cambridge and what he was doing to enhance it. Unprepared, Sacks tried to defend himself, saying, “In the situation in which I currently find myself. …”
The Rebbe uncharacteristically cut him off mid-sentence with a statement that changed his life: “No one finds himself in a specific situation. You got yourself into a certain situation and you can put yourself into another.” Believing that we can be enslaved by anyone or thing is in itself, a form of idol worship.
Salvador Litvak, Writer, Director, Accidental Talmudist
Rambam says, “…[eradication of idolatry] is the principal and first objective of the whole Torah.” (Moreh haNevuchim 3:29) The Torah was given when humankind was so steeped in idolatry that God finally said, “Enough.” Eventually, most people – and certainly the Jews – stopped bowing to idols. So if the Torah is primarily about eradicating such practices, has it somehow become less relevant today?
Adam, Eve and their near descendants knew they owed thanks for everything in their lives to God. Idolatry crept into the world via a tragic misconception that certain objects were God’s intermediaries. Therefore we thought, let us show respect to those intermediaries. We initially built temples to the moon and stars as a token of esteem to God, and soon forgot they were not intelligent forces in themselves. Says David Guttman, “This whole process started with an intellectual quest that got derailed… mystical ‘scientific secrets’ followed… One shaman now outdoes the next in a runaway proliferation of rituals, rules and general outlandish forms of worship.”(Avodah Zarah as Falsehood, Hakirah.org p.129)
Guttman explains that idolatry exists today in practices which hold that mysterious spiritual forces surround us and they can be harnessed without deference to our Creator. Peruse mass media and you’ll find countless examples of reliance on affirmations, manifestations and karma. God’s command that we eradicate false idols is thus more relevant today than ever.
May we triumph in this quest through love, awe and gratitude to the Holy One who gives us everything!
Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, Itinerant Musical Rabbi and Composer
This whole double parsha is filled with possibility. Choices to be made. Here we see again the instruction against making idols. We’ve just seen this message twice before. In Acharei Mot we learned not to copy the practices of Egypt or Canaan (Lev. 18:3) and in Kedoshim we learned not to turn to or make Gods for ourselves (Lev. 19:4). What is different here? “בְּאַרְצְכֶם” – “In your land.”
The additional verse not to place these idols in our land is instructive: It’s not just about you. It’s not just about your personal practice and the things you make for yourselves. What is happening in your land is your responsibility. In the Talmud we learn, “Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of their own family or community and does not do so is held responsible for their family or community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is held responsible for the entire world (BT Shabbat 54b).”
As we see when we read on, the choice is ours, and the very safety of the world hangs in the balance: “I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit (Lev. 26:4).” This Shabbat, how can we open our eyes beyond just “לכם”, ourselves, to do something about the idolization and false worship within ourselves and the community around us?
Rabbi Dr. David Mescheloff, Co-founder Israel Rabbis Forum
Why in the World Did Your Rabbi Do That? You can’t figure it out? Welcome to the club!!!
The Talmud reports (Megillah 22b): Rav (leading early 3rd century sage) once happened to visit the town of Bavel when the community, in great distress, declared a public fast. During the public prayer, everyone bowed face down on the floor, but Rav did not! The Talmud asks, “Why?”
First attempt: The synagogue floor was stone. The verse “And in your land you shall not place a pavement stone on which to prostrate yourselves” means one may not bow on a stone floor anywhere other than in the Jerusalem Temple. Then why did everyone else bow?
Only the floor in front of Rav was paved stone! So why didn’t he move from there? He didn’t want to trouble everyone to have to rise out of respect for him…
Second attempt: Maybe the thing was this: what the Torah forbids is fully prostrating oneself on the stone floor, with arms and legs stretched out. That’s what Rav didn’t do. But just bowing is permissible, and that’s what everyone else did. Then why didn’t Rav just bow, like everyone else?
Rav didn’t want to change his customary practice of full prostration. But doing it on the stone floor was forbidden.
Third attempt: Maybe the thing was this: a distinguished person may not prostrate himself completely unless he’s confident his prayer will be answered. So prostration would have been disgraceful for Rav.
What was Rav’s reason? Go know! But we learned three things while trying!
Ilan Reiner, Architect & Author of “Israel History Maps”
At first glance, this might seem like a repetition of the commandment given to us in other places in the Torah. With one exception – the words “in your land”. The parashot of Behar-Behukotai are all about the holiness of the Land of Israel. Since it, and the Jewish people living there, belong to Hashem, they can’t be sold permanently. If you respect the land and the people who work it – you will thrive. Otherwise, the land will vomit you out!
It would seem only logical to have, in between these Mitzvot, a repetition of the commandment against making idols, as idols definitely would desecrate the land that should be holy. However, in our verse, a new type of idol-worshiping is introduced: the pavement stone that’s meant for the worshippers to prostrate themselves. This pavement stone is set in a specific place and relates to that location. It should not be moved, as opposed to idols, and has a strong connection to the land in which it’s placed upon.
The “anti-idolatry” decree here is different from other instances. This is a warning not to transform the land and the prosperity that comes from the land, into idols and pavement stones that we might end up worshiping! The holiness of the land comes from the Mitzvot we do in the land. The Torah wants us to attribute our successes to Hashem and not come close to associating them to idols and foreign gods. By doing so, we can further thrive in the land of Israel.
With thanks to Rivkah Slonim, Salvador Litvak, Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, Rabbi Dr. David Mescheloff, and Ilan Reiner.
Image: Pavement stone
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