Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nitzavim

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 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 we are counseled 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 that which holds too much power over our hearts. What are today’s idols?

It has long been my belief that the most prevalent idol is not an object. It is instead anger. It is this emotion that we allow to have too much power over our hearts. Moses Maimonides suggested that anger is an idol because we let it rule our lives. An idol is anything to which we ascribe too much importance. This is anger. It is common to all. Everyone is taken in by anger. We bow down to it. We worship at the altar of indignation. We allow it to take over our souls. At times we are unable to even see those we love and those who love us because we become so blinded by anger.

This idol of anger has become even more prevalent in our own day and age because instead of surrounding ourselves with the righteous and wise we surround ourselves with like-minded people. We only talk to those who agree with us. But the measure of true friendship is telling someone when they are wrong. It is telling them when we disagree with them. Anger is actually fueled by agreeing friends. “Yes, you are so right. You were terribly wronged.” are the refrains of the like-minded. Anger is instead overcome by loving disagreements.

Let us banish anger from our hearts. Let us smash this modern idol!

Still I warn my children…

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