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D'var Torah: V’etchanan

This parashah is a lengthy sermon by Moses as to why the Israelites must not forsake God. It is a sermon filled with as much logic and evidence as Moses can muster. Moses argues on behalf of God in many ways. As someone who studies persuasion, I found his approach fascinating. How has Moses tried to persuade? He has used the following points:

Moses' speech is not only filled with arguments but with passion. And it is probably a passion born of desperation. Why desperation? Time and time again, the Israelites have shown that they lacked faith in God. First God brought the plagues down upon the Egyptians, causing Pharaoh to free the Israelites. But after all this has happened, when Pharaoh’s army has chased the Israelites to the Sea of Reeds, they are ready to abandon God and their freedom and return to slavery. After God created another miracle that saved the Israelites and destroyed Pharaoh’s army, the people’s faith is still shallow. While they are in the Sinai wilderness, and Moses is in the mountains conversing with God, the people turn to the golden calf. Even after the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments, as the Israelites wait to cross the Jordan, many of them were again complaining and ready to abandon God. In short, despite all of the awesome displays of God’s power, it is easy for the people to stray.

Moses very frequently voices his concern over the Israelites forsaking God, but when he is specific as to what evil things they might do, what does he most worry about? If I were asked to briefly describe what most constitutes an observant Jew, I would say keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. But Moses talks of Shabbat only once in the context of the Ten Commandments, and mentions kashrut not at all. But what he mentions much more is idols—visual representations of God.

I recall last summer a very interesting d'var, given by Betsy, which discussed idolatry—why it is so bad and what it means in contemporary life. I will not attempt to repeat that discussion but I will briefly comment on what it meant then.

Moses denigrated idols of wood and stone which see and hear nothing and can do nothing. The JPS Commentary, however, indicated that people who worshiped these did not really think that these statues had supernatural powers. Rather these representations were thought to encourage a favorable response from the gods in whom the people believed. So JPS, in effect, said that Moses was setting up a “straw person” to demolish.

But why was it so important to counter any visual representations? Having been recently led by William to watch the “Empire Strikes Back,” I am reminded of Yoda’s comment to Luke, “The dark side of the force is the easier, more seductive side. You will be led there if you allow fear, hatred and aggression to control you.”

Some secular-humanist commentators have said that there may not be a God, but that belief in a supernatural being fits some very powerful and primitive human needs. Moses has a somewhat different point of view. Yoda sees fear, hatred and aggression as primitive needs, which can only be overcome through maturity and discipline. Similarly, Moses believes that idol worship reflects a primitive need, while God, who cannot be seen, requires a faith born of discipline and maturity. In Moses’ view, any visual representation leads inevitably away from monotheism, towards the dark side of religion—the side which does not accept one God, and which does not accept the Mosaic moral code. Or to move from the Star Wars analogy to a medical ones, idolatry, in even the most seemingly minor fashion, is like taking a dangerously addictive drug. It is initially pleasurable but totally destructive.

This issue in a different form is with us today. To the Orthodox, any departure from Torah and halakhah is a slippery slope from Judaism. Those of us who are not Orthodox but are seriously Jewish and seriously ethical must keep working to build a life which allows compromises with halakhah, while still keeping a Jewish and ethical core.

—Stan Kaplowitz
July 1999

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