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Parashat Re’eh 5775 — 08/12/2015

Parashat Re’eh 5775 — 08/12/2015

You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you are driving out worship their gods… You must obliterate their names from that place. (12:2-3)

Idolatry is one of the three cardinal sins for which we must give our life rather than transgress (the other two are murder and sexual immorality).  It is only in the Land of Israel, however, that we are commanded to destroy everything to do with idolatry, and to forbid any idolators to live there.  Rav Kook explains that idolatry sees the world in terms of the clash of opposing forces, while monotheism sees the world in terms of its underlying unity, where opposing forces are harmonized.  He further goes on to assert that monotheism is uniquely at home in the Land of Israel:

Eretz Yisrael is bound to the spiritual life of Israel, the Torah; and the essence of the Torah’s wisdom is the inner truth of a united reality.  The special atmosphere of the Land of Israel instills greater awareness of the world’s unified foundation.  For this reason, obliteration of idolatry is especially important in the Land of Israel.

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) tells us that a Jew who lives outside the Land of Israel is almost an idolator – the atmosphere of the rest of the world has a disjointed quality to it that is characteristic of the endemic idolatry, and it affects us as well.  Even in such advanced Jewish communities such as Babylonia, where the Babylonian Talmud was developed, upon which almost all contemporary Jewish life is based, were not able to create the kind of harmony that was possible in Eretz Yisrael.  Even with my very limited skill in reading Talmud, the language of the Talmud Yerushalmi (the Talmud developed in Eretz Yisrael) is gentler and less adversarial than the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud).

What does Rav Kook mean by the statement that monotheism sees the world in terms of underlying unity, while idolatry sees the world in terms of opposing forces?  Isn’t it true that the world is composed of differences, whose interaction gives us the diversity of phenomena we see all around us?

I’d like to suggest an approach from Physics.  Physics describes the world as being composed of many layers: the surface layer of material objects, the molecular layer (the realm of chemistry), the atomic layer, the subatomic layer, etc.  In each of these layers we see a particular level of diversity, and we see opposing forces interacting with one another to provide the structure of that layer.  Thus, for example, the proton and the electron have opposite electrical charges – their mutual attraction gives the atomic layer its unique structure.  That is, the activity of the constituents of one level – the push and pull of the opposing qualities of those constituents – give rise to the layer above.

As we go to deeper layers, we find that the layer becomes simpler and simpler.  There are innumerable possible objects, animate and inanimate on the surface level of creation, but they are all made up of a much smaller number of molecules, all combined in different ways.  Similarly, all these molecules are made of a small number of different kinds of atoms – the 92 naturally occurring elements.  Each atom is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons, held together by 3 of the 4 basic forces of nature (electromagnetic force, strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force – gravity is not involved, to the best of our knowledge, on these levels).  On each successive level we find greater unity and simplicity.

The same goes for the forces of nature.  On the expressed level we have four seeming very different forces.  Often they appear to work at cross purposes, or to oppose one another.  One of the great breakthroughs of 20th century quantum field theory was to show that the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces are actually two different expressions of a single, underlying unified field.  There are theories which include the strong nuclear force as well, but attaining the energies needed to verify these more expanded theories are currently out of reach.  It is almost an article of faith among physicists that everything that exists, both “matter” and “forces,” is simple a complex pattern of vibration of an underlying unified field.  The different modes of vibration give rise to different particles and their interactions, but the ultimate, underlying reality is unity.

In the spiritual realm we find a similar structure.  On the surface we have the forms and phenomena of existence.  On subtler levels we have the various laws that govern these forms and phenomena, except now we are considering not only physical behavior, but moral behavior as well.  Thus we have laws that govern social interactions, laws that govern personal behavior, laws of history, laws of international relationships.  Our tradition (and others as well, incidentally) tells us that each of these laws can be personified.  Thus for example, the Rabbis discuss the fact that each of the nations of the world has an angelic representative in the Heavenly Tribunal.  And “every blade of grass has an angel telling it, ‘grow!'”  Of course at the basis of all the laws, all the forms, and all the phenomena of creation, is Gd’s Unity.  Just as physics describes everything as a manifestation of the unified field, so we say that all that we can perceive in creation is a manifestation of Gd’s Will.

Looked at in this light, we see that the difference between monotheism and idolatry is primarily a matter of where our awareness is focused.  If we focus our awareness on the different forces of nature (“gods”) then we will remain in the manifest level of life, the realm of partial views, partial understanding, and limited capability.  Certainly, as created, finite beings, we must live in the world of differences.  But that doesn’t mean we have to remain blind to the underlying reality behind all those differences, any more than we have to forget that the images on a movie screen are just a beam of light, projected through a lens and modulated by a strip of celluloid.  (I hope I didn’t ruin anybody’s moviegoing experience!)

Unfortunately, since we do live in the phenomenal world, our awareness gets trained to stay focused on change, impermanence, parts.  The trouble with idolatry is that it takes the world of change and elevates it to absolute status.  Only Gd is really Absolute.  Our Tradition gives us a structure by which we can regularly pull our awareness away from the changing and embrace the Unchanging.  This is the ultimate contrast to idolatry, and it can lead us, eventually, to a state where we are anchored to the Absolute, impervious to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  And if the Bard will forgive me one more time, ” ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 3

There were 10 generations between Noach and Avraham, to let you know how patient Gd is, for all these generations angered Gd until our father Avraham came and received the reward of them all.

Compare this to the previous Mishnah:

There were 10 generations from Adam to Noah, to tell you how patient Gd is, for all these generations angered Gd until He [finally] brought the Flood upon them.

In both cases there are 10 generations, and in both cases things are going downhill.  But in the first case, the downhill slide ends in the disaster of Noach’s Flood, while in the second Avraham appears to have won a lottery prize that nobody was able to claim for 10 generations.  What is the difference?

I think the answer goes back to the age-old question of how we deal with the negative forces in the environment.  Noach built the Ark and saved himself and his family, and a pair of all the animals and birds and insects.  But although he did take 120 years to build the Ark, and of course got plenty of curiosity questions (“what’s the boat for, Noach?”  “A Flood – no way!”), he didn’t really reach out and try to influence his generation.  Rather he stayed in splendid isolation, in his righteousness.

Avraham, on the other hand, was the archetype of the “outreach professional.”  He stood alone as the only monotheist in the world, but he stretched out his hand to everyone, and tried to help them transcend their boundaries and realize the unity that underlies it all.  In other words, he engaged with the world.  He put his own spirituality at risk, so to speak, for the sake of uplifting the world.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Noach was saved, but Avraham became the progenitor of the Jewish people, and of Mashiach, who will bring the final Redemption.