Pagan practice today has nothing to do with bowing to imitation images. Instead, like ancient monotheism’s counterfeit forms, paganism in 2016 misappropriates relationships and misdirects experiences. It objectifies intimacy. It commercializes the sublime. It commoditizes kinship. It looks at people in terms of their use. It views all interactions as transactions.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches: “There is a strange cunning in the fact that when man looks only at that which is useful, he eventually becomes useless to himself. In reducing the world to an instrument, man himself becomes an instrument.” The slope of descent into contemporary paganism can be subtle and difficult to discern. This is why uncompromising boundaries must guard against it’s allure.

In this week’s portion of Torah we encounter the punishing consequences of deviation within the priestly realm. Two of Aaron’s priestly sons bring forth an alien offering that is not commanded by God, asher lo tzivah. The rare punctuation (merchah k’fula) under the word not alerts us to the fact that the phrase lo tzivah only occurs one other time in the Bible, when the prophet Jeremiah shares searing grief amidst the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple (Lam. 3:37). Why does imprecise devotion lead to utter destruction? Boundaries matter. Once worship in biblical Israel incorporates altars, offerings, and priests – mirroring pagan rhythms of the ancient world – the Torah must erect firm and uncompromising barriers that prevent the slippery slope toward paganism.

Today’s culture of communication and discourse is ailing. Infernal anger, dislike of the unlike, the dismissal of diversity rather than elevating its dignity – such viruses are not treated with suppressants alone. They must be met with an elixir that nourishes the opposite impulse. Boundary preservation requires both prohibition and inspiration.

This week’s Sabbath is associated with purification (Shabbat Parah) in anticipation of next month’s Passover celebration. May we draw upon our sacred sources to purge the poison by promoting the precious. And may we restore into our relationships and experiences the intrinsic beauty they deserve.