When the Good and Holy Becomes Idolatry — Ki Tisa

I don’t know anybody who worships a golden calf these days, but I have met many idolators.

It is true, but almost cliché to say that gold and power are our modern idols.  However, what most tempts us to commit idolatry are good things.

In the U.S. and Canada, almost every synagogue has a U.S. or Canadian flag on one side of the aron hakodesh containing the Torah scrolls, and an Israeli flag on the other side.  The Israeli and the U.S. flags move me, sometimes to tears.  So do HaTikvah and The Star Spangled Banner.  I deeply identify with much of what they represent. Yet, when I served as a congregational rabbi, I asked that the flags be removed from the sanctuary.   In the sanctuary, we only worship God.  It is precisely because flags and anthems move me that I know how they, and the positive things they represent can become idolatry.

Nationhood and peoplehood can become idolatry.  It is almost cliché to say that money and power can become idolatries. Money and power are not bad in and of themselves, but their pursuit can become idolatrous.  Money becomes an idol when it becomes more important than our fellow Israelis (or any human being) living in poverty.

The Land of Israel is holy to anybody who takes the Torah seriously.  It is the sign of the unbroken covenant between God and the Jewish people.  It is where our sages and prophets walked.  It is seen in the Jewish tradition as a living entity, with feelings.

Because the Land is so holy, its holiness can blind and intoxicate.

The Land is holy, but only the human being is created in God’s Image.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, when speaking out against racism, said that as iconoclastic as the Bible is in rejecting any images of God, it teaches that there is an Image of God in this world-the human being.   So much of the abuse of Palestinian shepherds and farmers I deal with on an almost daily basis comes about because those blinded by the very real holiness of the Land of Israel are incapable of seeing or honoring God’s Image in the Palestinian farmer or shepherd trying to earn a living and feed his/her family.

We have seen the horrors that communism, capitalism and so many other isms have led to in the last 100 years.  We have seen how often human beings have been oppressed in the name of religious ideologies.  The most beautiful and noble “ism” that we can possibly come up with will become a nightmare when it becomes more important than the human being. Any ideology or belief will lead to terrible evil when we say that it will eventually improve the human condition, so the ends justify the means (harming human beings in the short term).

In our Torah portion, we are given a second chance-new tablets to replace the broken ones.  Let us create for ourselves a new chance. Let us find the way to continue to be moved by all the good and holy things in our lives, without ever putting them above God’s Image in every human being.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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