Thursday, September 2, 2010

Nitzavim-Vayelekh

Children often leave their homes accompanied by warnings from their parents.  “Don’t drink and drive.  Text me if your plans change.  Beware of strangers.  Don’t do drugs.  Watch out for those other kids.”

This is God’s tone as well.  The people are nearing the moment when they will cross into the land of Israel.  God accompanies them to this door with warnings.

“Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed through the midst of various other nations; and you have seen the detestable things and the fetishes of wood and stone, silver and gold that they keep.  Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations—perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood.  When such a person hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart…’”  (Deuteronomy 29:15-19)

Beware of false gods.  Beware of temptation.  Watch out for those other guys. 

The great medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, offers this observation: “It is natural to be influenced, in sentiments and conduct, by one’s neighbors and associates, and observe the customs of one’s fellow citizens.  Hence, a person ought constantly to associate with the righteous and frequent the company of the wise…”  (Mishneh Torah, Book One, Laws Relating to Ethical Conduct, 6:1)

For parents the greatest worries are matters of life and death. For God’s Torah the greatest danger is idolatry.  The idolatry of other nations was apparently very compelling.  It stood in stark contrast to the religion of ancient Israel.  Idolatry is about the concrete.  You can hold the object of your worship in your hands.  You can touch it. You can see it.  Believing in one God is abstract.  You cannot see God.  You cannot touch God.  In the Torah’s and the tradition’s eyes idols were everywhere and an everyday temptation.

This is why they counseled us to make friends with the righteous and wise. This is why we warn our children, “Watch out for those other kids.”  Is this warning effective for our children?  Perhaps instead we should honestly discuss with our children (and ourselves) what are the temptations that must be avoided.  Let us give them specific names.  Let us name those things which have too much power over our hearts.  What are today’s idols?

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