Each year, as I begin my studies with the bnai mitzvah families, we study the origin of Judaism and we look Abraham. We wonder-why him? When then? And what we can we learn. We review how Abraham was the original monotheist, and how, according the midrashim, rabbinic legend, it was Abraham that broke the idols in his father’s shop. And we begin to wonder-what might have it meant to have idols then, and what does it mean today…And how do we take the messages, of smashing idols, into our lives.
In thinking about this, I turn to this week’s parasha, parashat kedoshim which deals with the notion of holiness. Not necessarily the notions of holiness that we have been speaking about at the beginning of the book of Leviticus which was focused on temple rituals and sacrifice, but rather on the holiness intrinsic in each person. In fact, it is in this week’s parasha that we are taught, as Michael shared, that we should not curse the deaf, we shouldn’t put a stumbling block before the blind, we shouldn’t take vengeance and we should love our neighbor as ourselves. But there is one interesting line, amidst all of these practical and understandable verses, that I would like to explore this morning.
Our parasha teaches: Al Tifnu el ha-elilim v’elohei masecha lo ta-asu lacheum-do not turn to idols or make molton Gods for yourself: What was God afraid of? Maybe at the time of the giving of the torah, it was other gods. But is that what it means for us today? What are the idols that we need to be wary of?
The first part of our quest to answer this question can be found by looking at some of the other commandments in this week’s parasha.
Like I mentioned earlier, the majority of the parasha is dedicated to relationships between people. How we treat one another. For example, there are 2 verses where we are taught that we should share the corners of our land, we shouldn’t pick our vineyards bare, and we should let our gleanings lie for the poor and the stranger.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the past chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has a very interesting take on this. He says that this parasha within our torah is legislating a series of charitable acts that are quite unnatural, slightly utopian, and utterly unenforceable. You know what, he is totally right. No one is checking how much each of us gives to the poor. No one is looking at whether or not we drop off food for the food pantry. No one is checking the corners of our fields. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we stop encouraging or even commanding this behavior from ourselves. Just because something might be unenforceable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Similarly, in this week’s parasha, we are reminded of the importance of honoring our parents…as this weekend is Mother’s Day it is important to give a shout out to all of the mom’s in the room-but really-do we really need to legislate honor of our parents? Yes, in fact, we do.
Now, we recognize that we all have a responsibility to assist the vulnerable. Not to help them to the point that they will never help themselves, but make sure that they can begin to pull themselves up in a non embarrassing way. Think about the image of leaving the corners of the land for those in our community for those who need it, but then we must walk way because we don’t need to watch them take it. It doesn’t help anyone for us to see them or for them to see us.
So maybe the answer to what the idols that we shouldn’t turn to are the idols of selfishness and the idols of greed. And if this is so, we need to make sure that we are behaving in ways that reflects this holiness tradition.
Most of us don’t have actual fields where we would let the corners be for the poor but we do have the ability to bring our food to the food pantry, to give time and money to those in our society who need it, to support those organizations that help the needy. But we need to be conscious about this. This week we started planning for Shavuot, and as we began making plans for our program we determined that we are going to have a program called ‘From Farm to Synagogue!” Using the same idea of farm to table, we will have an entire meal dedicated to locally grown food which is sustainably raised. Why? Because this helps the environment, this helps farms, there is so much that can be done.
Several years ago, the Dalai Lama was at Colgate University when Dave was the University Chaplain. Normally, I don’t get my inspiration from other religious figures, but in this case, I was particularly moved, especially b/c so much of what he said was totally compatible with Judaism. For example, he spoke about the need for compassion, honesty, and the ability to see each other as a creation of God. Maybe these are some of the idols that we should be focusing on.
Maybe there are other idols as well. Could it be that God was warning against total secularism. Maybe we should find ways to reconcile a commitment to a religious life and living in a modern world, dedicated to the study of history, science, philosophy and the arts. This year alone we have spent time engaged in this conversation as we began to explore the relationship between genetics and science.
Finally, our torah could be warning against the evils of extreme competition to the point of destruction. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard and it doesn’t mean that inevitable some people will end of in higher positions of power, with more wealth, with more security, and so on and so forth. But when dealing with one another, we should compete but with a sense of a good human spirit. We should find ways to agree to disagree. We should understand that changes happen, but how they happen are important. We have two upcoming events at SPS which highlight this. This coming Monday we will welcome Fred Molod and Alexis Azria to speak about Jewish culture in NY and how it has evolved-we certainly are in a different place than where we were a century ago, and as Rick Kaminer always said to me…you can’t stay in the same place, otherwise you get left behind…but how you do that, how you evolve, is important. The second event coming up next week is the SPSTalks, where we will debate how we educate about Israel. Not an easy questions, but one that must be explored.
There are many idols that we must be wary of. During the conversation that I had w/the b’nai mitzvah families at the beginning of the year, after talking about Abraham, I asked them…what idols they need to break as they think about what it means to become a bar or bat mitzvah, or what it means to be living as a teenager in the 21st century. We always have interesting responses-our students are bright and thoughtful and they recognize that the idols that need smashing today are the movie stars and athletes who might seem to be role models in their professional lives, but don’t live up to standards of decency in their private lives. Our bar and bat mitzvah students understand that we need to break the idol that focuses on external beauty as the only marker of beauty or of physical appearance as the be all and end all of what is important. Sadly, the idols worship of guns…and the ability to get rid of them, have often been a part of the conversation.
At first blush, it seems like this line in our parasha is one of the most obsolete, one of the most irrelevant. But I hope that you will agree with me that we need to make sure that we don’t turn to the idols that are highlighted by so many in our society and in fact raise up the ideals and values that we can find right in our own tradition.