In an era of place-based idol worship, Judaism introduced a novel idea: that God could be worshipped at any place, at any time, by any one. Sure, we had a temple, because, as corporeal beings, it was hard for us to connect to God without acts of worship that engaged our five senses. But the temple was a means — not an ends.
However, being rooted in our own land, with centralized worship, proved too much of a temptation: We forgot that God’s presence extended beyond the temple. We thought that as long as we brought the right sacrifices at the right place, in the right time, it didn’t matter if we were immoral or worshipped idols outside of the temple’s walls. We also forgot that God’s presence in the world could continue even if the temple were no longer standing.
This worship of place is symbolized by Ahab, who, in Kings 1: 21, becomes so obsessed with the vineyard of a man called Navot, that his wife Jezebel concocts charges against Navot so she can appropriate his land and give it to her husband. Although, until this point, Ahab has been worshipping idols, this is the final straw. Elijah promptly informs Ahab that as punishment for stealing Navot’s land, he will die a terrible death and his household will come to an end.
What was so terrible about this one act? It was emblematic of the place-worship that was a hallmark of ancient idolatry — but Ahab was already worshipping idols. So what else could it be? Perhaps it was also emblematic of the immorality of a system in which the government could seize land at its whim, depriving a family of their home simply because it suited them. This type of act proves that Ahab’s society was one with no sense of justice, where the most basic laws of property had been violated. The government, instead of protecting people from arbitrary theft and violence, was instead enacting arbitrary theft and violence. The desire to permit immorality, was, in traditional rabbinic thought, a major factor behind the decision to worship idols. Thus, Ahab’s act not only symbolized the thinking embedded in idolatry, but also the complete lack of morality that resulted from it.
Perhaps a modern day analogy to Ahab’s sin would be seizing private land in the name of the (secular) ideal of nationalism, or, becoming so obsessed with one plot of land that one refuses to move even 100 meters in order to avoid confiscating private property.
Ahab’s sin can be contrasted with the sin of place-lessness: the sin of the spies. The rabbis chose to interpret that story charitably: In the desert, living off of mana, the Jews were free to focus on worshipping God. If they entered Israel, they’d be bogged down by the daily realities of land ownership — farming and putting bread on the table — and wouldn’t have time to ponder the Divine. A modern twist, of course, is that land ownership and statehood also carry the moral burden of ruling and, perhaps, of war. A Judaism disassociated from physical power does not have to deal with thorny issues of what it means to be a majority; it does not have to deal with the unpleasant practicalities of governing. An abstract set of values can always afford to be more moral than a code of ethics that applies to real situations in everyday life, and a religion of the mind can feel more fulfilling than a religion of the nation.
The spies and their generation, able to see only the negative aspects of statehood, were deprived of the opportunity to experience its positive aspects: the freedom we need to build our own society, a just society, a Godly society. When we misused that freedom, choosing instead to create a society where individual rights were sacrificed for the collective good as defined by the government, where we forgot that God’s presence transcends place, and instead focused on land and the pursuit of power, God took our land and our power away. Perhaps He realized that we needed to be reminded of the moral lessons that come with powerlessness, and of the dedication to the pursuit of justice that has been an essential component of Judaism ever since the Exodus from Egypt.
May we, as individuals and as a nation, be saved from the sins of place-obsession and of placelessness, and merit to build a just, Godly society in our time.