Parshat Ekev: Why poor Jews never have Christmas trees
… and you say in your heart: ‘My power and the mightof my hand has gotten me this wealth.’
But you should remember the LORD your G-d, for it is He that gives you the power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore unto you fathers, as it is this day.
And it shall be, if you should forget the LORD your G-d, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I forewarn you this day that you shall surely perish.
Deuteronomy/Devarim 8: 17-19
There is loss of “faith” and there is loss of “religion”. They are not the same thing. One can lose one’s faith in G-d, temporarily or permanently, yet still remain a member of the community of Jews.
Loss of faith happens all the time, usually as a result of tragedy or calamity that causes one to be angry with the Almighty and lose their trust and faith in Him. Nevertheless, such loss of faith does not necessarily, or even typically, result in leaving the Jewish fold. There are many people who are angry at G-d yet attend synagogue services regularly, and put on their tefillin even as their faith, per se, is in eclipse.
Then there are Jews who abandon their religion entirely, even going so far as to convert to another faith, usually Christianity of one kind or another.
In 19th Century Europe, especially in the more enlightened and liberal societies, apostasy among Jews was quite common. More recently, as religion per se lost its grip in western societies, many Jews would simply indulge in the accoutrements and celebrations, the feasts and festivals of Christians. More often than not, this second group was, and continues to be, comprised of those who have nothing to complain about. On the contrary, these are people who typically enjoy material and social success. Their conversions, if they converted, were entirely cynical – just part of the social climbing that comes with material acquisition.
After all, can any Jew really imagine becoming a Christian for reasons of belief? Yes, there have been isolated cases of Jews who converted out of conviction. But these are the exceptions. Typically Jews, especially German, middle European and British Jews who marched to the baptismal font were doing so simply to boost their social status, and make their progeny eligible for advantageous marriages in the greater society.
The Torah often warns us against worshipping other gods. One would think this ‘paranoia’ on the part of G-d was unnecessary. After all who in his right mind would abandon the kind of G-d we have – invisible, almighty, one – for pieces of metal, trees, celestial bodies, or, lowest of all, a human being? Surely it is not the tendency of sentient creatures to move from high to low. One does not gladly trade down from a Bentley to a Ford, from a mansion to a hovel, from a Cezanne to a day-glo painting of large eyed children on black velvet.
Why then is the Torah so obsessed with the possibility of our groveling before statuettes, wiping our backsides on the nose of Baal Peor, or, more recently, genuflecting to the image of a tortured Jew nailed to a cross? What exactly makes these more believable than G-d and His Torah?
The answer is in this week’s Parsha, specifically the verses cited above.
The Torah does not for a moment believe that a normal Jew would prefer Christianity to Judaism. What the Torah DOES believe is that a successful Jew is capable of convincing himself that he deserves all the credit for his material success.
Taking credit for one’s success – believing one deserves what he has amassed – is the ultimate apostasy. The greatest heresy is a sense of entitlement. ‘My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.’(Deut. 8:17)
Once this happens, the barriers are down. The hubris of success impels one to attain even greater success. Having made the millions one now wants to buy the social status to which he feels entitled.
Hence this warning against taking credit for one’s wealth is followed immediately by; And it shall be, if you should forget the LORD your G-d, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I forewarn you this day that you shall surely perish (Deut. 8:19). Because there is a direct causal relationship between the hubris of material success and idolatry/apostasy.
In the past, the desire for upwardly mobile social acceptability would require conversion. Today one does not have to go quite that far. Today religion is passé among more sophisticated westerners. For the modern success story, a Christmas tree is often enough, plus a nice dinner with its traditional ham and the heartwarming grog that ostensibly induces “peace on earth and goodwill among men”. Surely such innocent celebration of the prevailing culture can do no real harm to one’s Jewish identity. On can, after all, have a Passover seder AND a Christmas tree. But, as we all know, the generation that celebrates Passover and Christmas will yield children that only celebrate the latter.
“כחי ועוצם ידי”. The moment someone believes “my power and the might of my hand” is the sole basis of their success, they have embarked on the road to apostasy. Idolatry and apostasy among Jews is driven not by genuine faith but rather by genuine greed. Poor Jews don’t have Christmas trees.
I would imagine G-d can forgive the true meshumad (apostate) who, after all, still believes in Him albeit with a misguided soul. What the Torah cannot forgive is the cynical apostate whose first crime is his inability to thank G-d for his good fortune. This lack of humility is the booster rocket for the need to achieve even greater success. And for this one needs a Christmas tree, at the very least.