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Parashat VaEtchanan 5776 — 08/20/2016

Parashat VaEtchanan 5776 — 08/20/2016

Devarim 3:23 – 7:11

A major portion of our parashah, and indeed of the whole book of Devarim, is devoted to warning Israel against idolatry. Gd is described as a “jealous” (or “zealous” – the two words are closely related) Gd, Who demands exclusive worship. Now the Jewish people has just come out of Egypt, and seen how Gd destroyed Egypt and its idols, which were powerless against Gd. Why would Israel want to worship idols. Furthermore, when Moses spoke out the book of Devarim, the Israelites had already seen Gd destroy Sichon and Og, and they were about to experience Gd’s destruction of the Canaanite nations, whose gods were also powerless to help them. So what was so enticing about idolatry?

And yet, the Talmud tells us that after R. Ashi had denigrated King Menashe, one of the worst idolators and most evil of the Kings of Yehudah, Menashe appeared to him in a dream and stumped him in a series of difficult halachic questions. R. Ashi asked him, “If you’re so smart, why were you an idolator?” Menashe responded, “Had you been there [i.e. many centuries before], you would have lifted up the edge of your garment and run after me.” (Sanhedrin 102b). And in fact, our Sages tell us that it was not until the early days of the Second Temple, that the Men of the Great Assembly prayed that the inclination towards idolatry be removed. Gd acceded to their wish, but to balance things out, prophecy was removed as well.

What then is idolatry? R Steinsaltz writes:

Apparently the Torah’s preoccupation with idolatry is rooted in the fact that it is not defined as a collection of forbidden objects but, rather, depends on man’s intention … When one worships an object, he makes it an idol, whether it is the image of a man or the image of a donkey, the image of a louse or the image of a fish. … one who worships anything other than Gd, even an archangel, turns that object into an idol…

I think by “worship” we mean “ascribes independent power to.” Rambam’s theory of the growth of idolatry is that while people recognized that Gd exists and created the world, they came to believe that He then delegated the day-to-day operations to subordinates – the Sun, Moon and stars (perhaps in modern terms we would say the Laws of Nature). They then began to worship the subordinates in an effort to influence them in our favor.

There are several problems with this approach according to Jewish tradition. First, we hold that Gd in fact did not delegate the running of the world to underlings. He may use the laws of nature as the mechanism by which He runs the world, but Gd is in complete charge – as our Sages tell us, nobody so much as stubs a toe on earth if it has not been decreed in Heaven. (How this comports with our having free will to make moral choices is the subject of another discussion.) Therefore worshiping laws of nature is a pointless waste of time. (We certainly can manipulate laws of nature – you do that every time you turn a light switch on or off.)

Second, ascribing independent power to anything other than Gd detracts, as it were, from Gd’s glory, which we are duty-bound to enhance in the world. We are taking our awareness away from the unified, wholeness value and putting it on some partial value, lowering the infinite and absolute to something finite and raising something finite to infinite value. This is exactly the opposite direction that we want to go!

R. Steinsaltz continues:

The essence of the matter is that anything that is removed from the framework that the Torah established and set up independently becomes idolatry, even if this entity seems like something inherently holy or positive. …

An expression of this idea appears in the Midrash in connection with the sin of the Golden Calf. Gd says, “I go forth in My chariot so as to give them the Torah … and they unhitch one of the animals of My chariot” (Exodus Rabba 43:8). That is to say, at the revelation at Sinai, Israel beheld the divine chariot with its four hayot [RAR: animals], and they took one of the hayot and began to worship it. The ox’s face in the divine chariot is an angel, but when it was worshiped at Mount Sinai it became the exact opposite of an angel. If Israel had taken the divine chariot in its entirety, that would have been perfectly acceptable. But when they removed one of its parts, that constituted the sin of the Golden Calf, for which we are paying a price to this very day. … When one separates something from the whole, one holds on to a mere fragment of the pure form. The moment one removes it, no matter how holy it was, it turns into an idol.

It seems to me that this is the real crux of the matter. The essence of Divinity is wholeness, integration, perfection. When we say we “worship” Gd, I think what we are really doing is acknowledging with great awe Gd’s Unity and perfection, and striving to reflect that Unity and perfection, to the extent possible for a limited human being, in our own lives. Why then, do we worship idols, be they movie stars, or money, or power or anything else? Perhaps the answer is simply that these are things that (a) we think will make us happy and (b) we can get our heads around. This is not worship – it’s an attempt to control our environment. It certainly isn’t surrendering ourselves to Gd!

They way to avoid idolatry then is not simply to stay away from “graven images” and Golden Calves, although this much is certainly necessary. The real trick is that we have to raise our level of consciousness from our ordinary state, where boundaries dominate and our awareness of wholeness is virtually wholly lost, to one in which wholeness dominates. Like any other system of development, it takes practice and repetition. We need to take our awareness repeatedly to the level that transcends all the parts and pieces of life. When transcendence is permanently established in our awareness, we will be at the point where we can truly worship Gd.

Haftarah: Yishaya 40:1-26 (Shabbat Nachamu)

Our Haftarah is called the “Haftarah of Comfort” after its first words (Nachamu = “be comforted” – spoken by Gd to Israel). It is the first of 7 haftarot between Tisha B’Av and Rosh haShanah called the “Seven of Consolation” (sheva d’nechamata) that don’t actually relate to the parashah directly. There is an indirect relation however – the Sages tell us that each parashah is related to the time of year at which it is read and sometimes actually contains hints to events which will only be memorialized many centuries in the future. So the parshiyot we read during these seven weeks of comfort will relate to that reality, and thereby to the haftarot of consolation as well. If I see a relationship I will certainly point it out, but generally I’m not that clever.


All flesh is grass, and all its kindness like the flower of the field. The grass shall wither, the flower shall fade, for the breath of Hashem has blown upon it; in truth, the people is grass. The grass shall wither, the flower shall fade, but the word of our Gd shall stand forever. (6-8)

 All the nations are as nothing before Him, as nothingness and emptiness are they considered by Him (17)

 I especially like the first quote, as it forms the text of one of the sections of Brahms’ German Requiem. In any event, the thrust of the section is the nothingness of the whole cosmos compared to Gd. Gd is infinite, everything else is finite, and compared to the infinite there’s little or no difference between a hundred and a million and a million billion. And it is through wholeness, infinity that Israel will be redeemed. We may have fallen away from wholeness, we may have gotten caught up in small boundaries, but the prophet reassures us that we will return to the state of wholeness, as that is our natural state of being.



Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Tu B’Av

The 15th Day of the month of Av, Tu B’Av is called by some “The Holiday of Love.” The Talmud calls it the greatest holiday of the year, with Yom Kippur a close second!

For one, the Talmud tells us the maidens of Jerusalem would go into the vineyards to dance and whatever man was without a wife would go there to seek one. Certainly the finding of a soulmate is a major holiday.

But another reason is that it celebrates the Love between the physical world, the world below, and the spiritual world, the world above. Definitely deserving a major holiday!

This Fullness when two unite, as man and woman, or as Physical and Spiritual has an astronomical correlate. Tu B’Av is a full moon day, as are Passover, Sukkot and Tu Bishbat. From this we can see that Tu B’Av can be associated with the romance of a full moon. It may celebrate the romance between man and woman, or, as Rabbi Chaim Vital suggests, it is the romance between the world of the limited senses and the unlimited, transcendent world, as is the case with Passover, Sukkot and Tu Bishbat.

On Passover there is the celebration of uniting with Gd – the Husband – so the Angel of Death (disunion) passes over us; on Sukkot, we celebrate the uniting of the outside with the inside by spending time outside our homes in sukkahs and also by uniting the directions of space by waving the Four Species in all directions, including up and down.

Like Tu B’Av, Sukkot has the more concrete meaning, related to the physical world, and also the more spiritual meaning in which we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt (Mitzraim, meaning “restrictions”) and enter the Desert, symbolic of Transcendence, but led by Gd, manifest physically in cloud and fire.

Tu B’Shevat is both a holiday of physical trees — cedars, palms, oaks….. and, Kabbalistically, the celebration of the Tree of Life, the 10 Sephirot, or, primary emanations within Gd that symbolize Gd as not merely an undifferentiated mass of Fullness, but as an ocean of consciousness in integrated detail.

And Tu B’Av is a day we can celebrate today in both ways and many more that give us the feeling of love becoming Love and dissolving all separation; bringing man and woman together as one, affirming the Oneness of husband and wife and bringing all of life together in One.