Two essays on Parshat Ekev
- Why worshipping alien gods is a trap
In last week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vaethanan, we were given a more elaborate reprise of the Ten Commandments which opens with:
“I am the Lord your G-d Who took you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall not have the gods of others before me”
It is interesting that the verse offers no reason for us not to have other gods. This is a commandment that should require no explanation, even though we may wonder why it does not say “I am the Lord your G-d, there is no other”. Indeed it seems to imply that there are indeed other deities, but Israelites are enjoined from worshipping those others.
Nevertheless both here and in the earlier version which appears in Exodus (Parshat Yitro) we are told in no uncertain terms to eschew any worship of foreign deities, and we never ask or expect any reason. Indeed the reason should be obvious.
And yet in this week’s reading, Parshat Ekev, we are treated to a very puzzling verse:
“And you shall consume all the peoples which the Lord your G-d gives you; you shall not spare them, nor shall you worship their gods, for that will ensnare you.” —Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:16
This is both remarkable and puzzling. After all, the Israelites have just heard – for the second time – the Ten Commandments in which the very first utterance forbids us from “having any other gods”. We have our one G-d to the exclusion of all others. Now, suddenly, we are told here that we should avoid worshipping the gods of the nations which we will vanquish and obliterate (which clearly proves their gods’ impotence) because those gods will be a trap. In other words we avoid worshipping other gods not because we already have our G-d, but because worshipping those other gods is a trap.
Astonishing! How can we possibly be seduced by the failed gods of nations we have defeated? And what exactly can the worship of such deities actually entrap us into doing? Isn’t the very act of worshipping such idols the ultimate infraction? What can possibly be triggered beyond this consummate sin?
Remarkably, Rashi has nothing to say about this verse – a verse that cries out of interpretation..
There may be a hint later on in verse 25 which also uses a variation of the word “mokesh” – snare, only here the word appears as a verb “tivakesh” – you will be ensnared.
The graven images of their gods you will burn with fire; you shall not covet (lo tahmod) the silver or gold that is upon them and take it for yourself, lest you be ensnared (pen tivakesh) by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord, your G-d. —
It is fascinating to note that verse 7 in which we are commanded not to worship the Canaanite gods, and which warns of entrapment by them, is in effect an expansion on the first of the Ten Commandments. Verse 25 in which we are commanded not to covet the gold and silver encrustation on such deities lest we be entrapped by them, is a clear expansion of the Tenth Commandment, not to covet.
And therein, perhaps, is the answer to our question. For indeed verse 7 and verse 25 are a single idea. The fundamental difference between the Israelite G-d and these other gods is that our G-d cannot be seen, touched, measured, weighed or traded. Our G-d is not the sum of its parts, let alone greater than the sum of its parts. Our G-d is an abstraction.
By contrast a Canaanite god may have no abilities or powers. But it does contain silver and gold,materials which we can indeed covet to the point where we lose any perspective and can actually forget G-d in our pursuit of such material treasure.
Hence when the first commandment says “You shall not have the gods of others before me”, it is not referring to those gods in terms of them having any powers. Rather it is referring to them only as the mercantile value of the silver and gold of which they are made, and the power of silver and gold to seduce us into forgetting our priorities.
So, yes, if we worship other gods we are in effect debasing ourselves by worshipping gold and silver. By not destroying the Canaanite idols we are indeed forgetting our G-d because of the seductive nature of the precious metals from which these gods are crafted.
This is confirmed later in this very parsha when the Torah warns us about taking credit for our material success; “My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.’(Deut. 8:17). This is the trap about which we are being warned in verses 7 and 25. The worshipping of (gold and silver) idols is all about the coveting of material goods which leads us into the ultimate trap, that of taking credit for our material achievements. And this is the ultimate form of idolatry.
- Why poor Jews never have Christmas trees
… and you say in your heart: ‘My power and the might of 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 accouterments 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.