Friday, April 14, 2017

Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach: Quitting an Ancient Addiction

There is a very serious tension that resurfaces over and over again in the Torah. It's so severe, so deeply-problematic, that it's almost like an addiction. Believe it or not, I'm talking about idol worship. It sounds like such an insignificant thing; it is such a non-issue in our world that we forget how alluring, enticing, and tempting it really was to the ancient Israelites. For our ancestors, it was a PAINFUL habit to break; just like any modern-day addiction that plagues society today. Let me give you a couple of examples, and let's also examine why this is so relevant and prevalent during this Passover holiday.

Idol worship was all around. Our forebearers were the ONLY monotheists, and there wasn't even all that much atheism around, so EVERYONE you'd meet was essentially an idol worshiper. This was a problem
for nearly everyone we read about in Genesis. Abraham was concerned about his son, Isaac, marrying a local (pagan) woman. Isaac and Rebecca agonized over Jacob's marital prospects. And even when Jacob married cousins, they had trouble abandoning their idolatrous ways. In Genesis, chapter 31, we read about Rachel stealing her father's household idols; like I said, a tough habit to just quit outright. Throughout the Torah, and indeed later books of the Bible as well, we are warned about Moabite and Canaanite women, we are commanded not to make deals with the locals, and we are ordered to smash the holy places of any enemies we defeat. Why? The answer, in every instance, is fear of descending into idol worship.

So what is the big lure? Why is it so addictive and enticing? This Shabbat, our reading for Chol Ha-Moed (in-between days of) Pesach gives us some insight. The people want to SEE God. They simply cannot bear an invisible, intangible
God. Even after all the plagues and miracles they had witnessed, they still couldn't go without. They so badly needed an image, a THING to worship, it led them to build a Golden Calf. Despite being punished, the temptation persisted, and they kept clamoring for a statue, a symbol, SOMETHING!!! Our Torah reading shares with us a moment of vulnerability and insecurity, where even Moses himself asks God for something physical to hold onto: "Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor" (Exodus, 33:13). And when God agrees to be present... but in a more general, vague, ephemeral sort of way, Moses can't help himself, and blurts out: "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!!" (v. 18) And God has to disappoint him: "you cannot see My Face, for humans cannot see Me and live" (v. 20).

Even Moses wants it. He's been "clean" of idol worship since the burning bush, but the pull is always there at the edges...
In part, it is indeed about the physicality of it, but what that REALLY signifies is assurance, dependability, guarantees. The idolaters could SEE their god, so obviously that meant their prayers were heard, and the god in question would take care of them. For us, we have to hope God hears us, and we are left in an uncertain world where bad things happen and good people suffer. We may not have idols in the classic sense today, but we DO have people all around us promising eternal paradise, and knowledge of "The Truth" with perfect certainty. And it's REALLY enticing. People are drawn to it like moths to a flame... or like addicts to a dealer.

And this is our reading on Passover! Why? Because this holiday celebrates our closeness with God, and all the ways in which God really WAS there for us, saving us from slavery. And the bond that we feel, that we felt back then, needs to last us and sustain us for generation after generation. God doesn't work miracles like that today; instead we need faith that can survive a lack of idols AND an imperfect world. Is it hard? Of course. But what's the alternative? The simplicity promised by the idol worshipers is an illusion. It always has been and always will be. Passover reminds us that reality is tough, it's filled with more questions than answers, but it's real. And in the end, after we quit the addiction, it's leaps and bounds more rewarding and satisfying than any other alternative.

Chag Sameach!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Gauraviit on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Dr Jorgen on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of 1Veertje on Wikimedia Commons

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