Just a few weeks ago we chanted the Sh’ma for the 2nd time in our Torah cycle-considered to be the central statement of monotheistic belief. By its declaration alone, one would believe that the children of Israel were strictly monotheists. But not so fast. For one, there are ambiguities on how one translates the words of the Sh’ma themself. One rendering is "Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God! Adonai is One!”
But those same words could also be translated as: "Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God – Adonai alone." One must only consider the golden calf to know that our biblical forefathers were quick to replace the ineffable God with a shoddily put together bovine.
Or consider the Mi Chamocha as well, “Who is like you, Oh God among the gods who are worshipped?” (Exodus 15:11) Clearly the Israelites had experience with other gods in the incorporeal world even if primary focus (and in this case the praise) was that of Yud-hay-vav-hay-Adonai.
And the list doesn’t end there.
These admonitions must have meant it was problematic, as parents don’t usually threaten punishment to children not engaged in the bad behavior.
Now don’t get me wrong. Of course there are some who believe that Moses’s experience of God at the burning bush is the moment Monotheism becomes firmly embraced. But that is not the prevailing theory.
Others believe it is later-and occurs during the monastic period during the reigns of kings Hezekiah (715-687 BCE) and Josiah (640-609 BCE) who advocated for an exclusive worship of Y-H-V-H. But that’s monolatry, which is the worship of one god without denial of the existence of other gods, not monotheism.
Most scholars believe that the worship of YHVH exclusively doesn’t completely hold until the Persian period (539-333 BCE). They posit that it was our exiles during the destruction of the first and second temples which help the Israelites follow the influence of Deutero-Isaiah praising and thanking the One true God. By the way, the seven haftarot of comfort we read after Tisha B’av thru to Rosh Hashana are all attributed to this unknown author and we read the 4th in that series on Saturday.
But truthfully, when was that the end of our Idol practice? What of the idolatry that exists to this day?
I’m certainly not alone in my belief that money, power, and status have become a form of idolatry. Look at how we admire and try to emulate the Paris Hiltons of the world. Although I certainly don’t wish to pick on her alone, Ms. Hilton seems to be famous for being famous and not for the ways she gives back to the community, or feeds the hungry, or supports those struggling.
Perhaps Rabbi Michael Lotker puts it best: “If an alien came down to this planet and observed our culture, what would he/she/it conclude we worship. I can just imagine the report back to base. ‘The Earthling spends hours before the television god in silent rapture. The Earthling is almost constantly connected to his small idols by two wires joining his brain through the ears. He seems in a constant hypnotic trance while connected. The Earthling has a strange rite conducted in nature wherein he dresses strangely and chases the small ball god around acres and acres of land alternative hitting and caressing the oddly dimpled ball god in its journey from its small pedestal to its temporary burial ground in a small hole. The journey is often accompanied by a litany of both prayer and curses…’
If you find yourself caring more for the things made with human hands than for our fellow humans, this is indeed idol worship. If your focus is on stars (isn’t the TV show called “American Idol”) rather than the architect of the heavens and earth, this is indeed idolatry. How many more people know Phil Robertson whose claim to fame is calling ducks and insulting minorities on television than Norman Borlaug, an American biologist and humanitarian whose work resulted in the literal saving of more than a billion lives?”
The sad truth is that even with more, we can feel empty. And so we take comfort in our handywork-and not the work of our hands. As Isaiah 2:8 points out:
Their land is full of false Gods, of idols;
To the work of their own hands they bow down low,
To that which was fashioned by their fingers!
There is nothing wrong with “things”, as long as they remain just that. The challenge is when we believe that the possession will bring us happiness or security, or more consequentially, if those idols of objects and ideas keep us from the sacred work justice.
So what to do about it? Well, one way to start is to pick low hanging fruit. Last Friday at our Share Shabbat, we asked folks to bring non-perishable items for Care for Real. If you missed that Share Shabbat, we will be collecting non-perishables again at Yom Kippur. Or perhaps consider the Maot Chitim Food Packing and Delivering day on Sunday, August 29. There congregants will help this organization get out donations to the needy among us. Many thanks for Barry Glaser and Stephen Melamed for their leadership with this project. I’m grateful that the vast majority of us don’t know the pain of real hunger, and by supporting those who do in the struggle, we can make the words of the prophet true:
“I the LORD, in My grace, have summoned you, And I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you A covenant people, a light of nations—
Opening eyes deprived of light, Rescuing prisoners from confinement, From the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” Isaiah 42:6-7
And then, and only then-by the pursuit of justice, we teach of the one God’s compassion and love, and become idol worshipers no more.
Michelle Drucker Friedman