Imagining a world without idols


18 Av 5780/August 7, 2020

Parashat Ekev is Moshe’s second speech to the generation preparing to enter the Eretz Cannan. Entering the promised land and dispossessing the nations who live there is conditional on loyalty to God’s covenantal expectations. This conditionality is powerfully expressed in the section from verses familiar as the second section of the Shema prayer:

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the LORD your God looks after, on which the LORD your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end. 

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD is assigning to you. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates— to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth. (Devarim 11:10-21)

These verses capture the important motif that God’s promise requires loyalty. They also describe the seductive quality of idolatry. Finally, the loyalty of the Jewish people to fulfill God’s will expressed through mitzvot has cosmic implications for the natural world. Just as God’s words are to be inscribed on doorways and on the arm opposite the heart and on the forehead pointing to one’s mind, Israel’s relationship with the Creator is to be a lived experience etched into the topography and climate of the land. The promised territory does not depend upon human technology, but serves as an ultimate reminder that all of life depends upon God’s will. If the Jewish people become idolaters, then heaven and earth will wither until the people regain their consciousness of their role to serve the Creator.

It is tempting to read the parasha literally, as a nationalist narrative enjoining the dispossession of indigenous nations. Such a reading, however, ignores several critical factors. I will present these now, and then offer an alternative reading. First, the nations occupying the land are described throughout as wicked. The Torah text is explicit: And when Hashem has removed these peoples from your path, do not say to yourselves: “Hashem has enabled us to take this land because we are so righteous and good.” Hashem is not giving you this land because of your righteousness. Hashem is giving you this land because of the wickedness of those nations, and because of the promise Hashem made to your ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. (Devarim 9:4-6) The historicity of the seven nations does not matter. Quite the contrary: Ekev is part of a sacred history, providing language for interpreting a history of the human spirit and a way of imagining God’s expectations of us. The language of this sacred history, then, links idolatry with cruelty, and makes the opportunity to transform life on earth into a prototype of a redeemed world conditional on specific values. 

Second, it is critical to clarify assumptions behind this reading. Earlier in Devarim Moshe said to this same assembly: Observe these mitzvot faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” (Devarim 4:6). Any reading of the Torah in today’s world that does not evoke this response from many cultures and nations in the world denigrates and diminishes the sanctity of God’s vision. If one’s interpretation of the Torah results in a nativistic, narrow, oppressive reading, then that interpretation does not comport with the criterion of humanity’s acknowledgement that the Jewish people are a “wise and discerning people.”

Third, I not only assume that every interpretation of the Torah reflects a world-view, but that is the only authentic way of trying to understand the demands the Torah places upon us today. I ground this hermeneutic approach in Ramban’s claim that the entire Torah is Hashem’s name, written in a literary form that we can read. As I quoted earlier this year: The entire Torah is God’s names. All of the letters of God’s name were transposed into other words as if to turn the entire Torah into a parable….It is because of this that a single missing letter invalidates a sefer Torah from being read even if that missing letter does not affect the meaning of a word….Since the Torah is black fire on white fire…it is one continuous name…. This tradition enables one to approach the text of Torah with an infinite number of authentic readings. As the scholar of Jewish mystical tradition, Joseph Dan wrote: the mystic who identifies it with the secret name of God actually treats the text of the Torah as a huge blank scroll, as far as meaning is concerned, on which any meaning can be written. (Jewish Mysticism: volume 3, The Modern Period, Joseph Dan, pg. 148)

Finally, I take these points together: The Torah is open to the reader’s interpretation, and its wisdom must meet the criterion of resonating with the experiences of a broad swath of humanity and not just as the sacred history of the Jewish people alone. Taking these assumptions together, I ask, what does Moshe’s narration of our sacred history  mean for the soul of humankind?

Moshe is describing the dispossession of idolatrous cultures. Humanity, demands God, must engage in a war against idolatry. There is no room for idolatry on earth. The ecology of the natural world cannot tolerate an idolatrous humanity. Rebellion against the Creator of the world is a rebellion against all that Creator fashioned. Such rebellion places humanity at the center of the world, with no powers evoking fear, awe or respect. Idolatry, from this perspective, does not refer formalistically to bowing before a statue, although such behaviors run the risk of forming dangerous habits of mind. Idolatry’s allure, its seductive power, lies precisely in our predisposition to worship ourselves. 

Moshe says this explicitly: Be careful to remember all [God did for you], and do not say to yourselves, “I became rich and successful because of my own power and ability. Everything I have I acquired completely on my own!” Remember that it is Hashem who gives you the power to get wealth. Hashem is keeping the promise Hashem made to your ancestors, to bless their children with well-being. If you do forget Hashem and follow other gods and serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish like these other nations. (Devarim 8:17-20)

God demands that Israel commit themselves to the truth, says Moshe. Circumcise your hearts and soften the backs of your neck. The great and awesome God, does not privilege one person over another. God does not take bribes. God defends justice for the widow and orphan, and befriends immigrants by giving them food and clothing. So, you, too, should love immigrants, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt. (Devarim 10:16-18) Ramban adds here, You are to open your hearts to the truth, unlike you have been up until now. Do not act as if God has not granted you a heart for understanding, eyes for vision and eyes to hear….And when Moshe says that God does not take bribes, Moshe means that if a righteous person makes a mistake, they must suffer the consequences and not rely on any privileges because they have otherwise been righteous.

Idolatry, by implication, denies that human blessings come from any source other than either the work of one’s own hands, and/or one’s privileged position in society. The very topography of the promised land disabuses one of that belief: no amount of technological prowess, no clever irrigation system, can deny the ultimate reality that people are not in control of the universe. 

The humility that emerges from acknowledging our dependence on forces out of our control opens the heart of people to each other. The world has developed with innumerable colorful, beautiful, and interesting cultures. Moshe asks us to distinguish between cultures that worship themselves, and those that provide ways for people to humble themselves before the awesome forces of creation. Supremacies, like Nazism and Fascism, are modern expressions of the idolatry Moshe enjoins. All nationalisms, furthermore, all expressions of patriotism, run the risk of self- worship and the allure of the silver and gold of idolatry.

Moshe is teaching that God wants humanity to treat each other with humility and not arrogance, for arrogance and self-worship lead to cruelty, corruption, dehumanization and enslavement. In the words of the Mei haShiloach, Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (1801-1854), on this parasha, God commanded the destruction of the seven nations of the land of Canaan because of their innate cruelty. God hates human cruelty. 

The preparations for conquering the land, then, form a sacred narrative for the human psyche, of how the Jewish people–and by extension, all of humanity–are to view each other. Rather than a military conquest, Moshe’s words are about conquering one’s predisposition to self-worship. Rabbi Moshe David Valle emphasizes the interiority of this text: Grabbing “externalities” brazenly blocks the ability for acts of loving kindness to spread throughout the person’s heart and even throughout one’s body. We know that the predisposition for kindness is a softening of the person. We also know that whenever the natural inclination towards kindness is occluded, one hardens. That hardness then remains, and the psychic ossification results in the stubbornness of a “stiff neck and heart of stone.” This is the meaning of the text when the Torah says, “God is not giving you the good land because of your righteousness.  (Mishne LaMelech, commentary on Sefer Devarim, parashat Ekev, Rabbi Moshe David Valle)

The Jewish people is, according to this reading, God’s final commitment to a divine aspiration for all of humanity. God’s hope and vision here is for an idol-free world, a world of diverse nations all sharing the humility that comes from acknowledging that we are all creatures of a higher power. That humility should guard against arrogance, cruelty, and brazen insensitivity. It should incline all people towards kindness to the vulnerable: poor, the abandoned, and immigrants. God sees the seductive allure of idolatry; we all worship ourselves and the creations of our own hearts, minds and hands. But a world filled with respect, kindness and love requires acknowledging those idolatrous beliefs and smashing those idols of fear, hatred, violence and desperation. 

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Dov


About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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