Thursday, March 08, 2007

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What’s So Wrong With Idolatry?

by Reb Gutman Locks of the Old City, Jerusalem, Israel at Mystical Paths

Give Me More!

In this week’s portion of the Torah, the greatest Jewish communal sin of all time occurred. The Children of Israel made an idol! Moshe became so angry that he smashed the tablets of the Ten Commandments and they broke into pieces.

This shows that the sin of idolatry is so great that it destroys the entire Torah. If someone observed every detail of the Torah, but also harbored even a tiny idol, he has kept none of the Torah.

Poison can be nullified by mixing it with a non-poisonous substance. If the poison is less than one sixtieth of the clean portion, the poison is nullified. If it were a particularly loathsome poison, it would require one in a thousand to nullify it. But no matter how bad the poison is with enough purity it can be nullified. This is not true about idolatry. No matter how many holy deeds are mixed in with even a tiny drop of idolatry, still it can never be nullified. The mixture will always be forbidden.

Moshe punished the sinners and then prayed that God would forgive them. God agreed. Then, in a seemingly brazen act, Moshe asked God to show him His glory. [i] But wouldn’t this be a time to humbly thank God for answering his prayers?

When Moshe asked God to show him His glory, he was actually further denouncing idolatry. His prayer showed that it is God’s glory that we love and seek, not the foolishness of idolatry.

Still, how could Moshe be so impudent to seek more from Hashem at that time? [ii] When the Torah tells us to be satisfied with our lot, it is speaking of our physical lot. We should always be thankful for all that we have, and although we should work for more, whatever the outcome of our deeds might be we are to be thankful.

But this is not true of our spiritual lot. We should always seek more. No matter how great the revelation is, after it ceases we should say, “Thank you so much for having shown me Your glory. Please do it again only greater, and next time don’t take it away.” Then we have to go back to work, doing the things that we know He loves so much so He will again bless us with even a tiny ray of His wondrous light.

What’s So Wrong With Idolatry?

Besides relating the story of that most infamous Jewish sin of all time, the golden calf, there are a large number of extremely important commandments given this week. For instance, the half-shekel donation for atonement, more major rules about the holy service and its vessels, and the second set of tablets containing the “Ten Commandments” are made.

Then there is a seemingly obscure, unimportant prohibition against “cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.” What is such an apparently illogical, minor prohibition as cooking milk and meat together doing so close to such an earthshaking prohibition as idolatry? Are these somehow related?

Also, really, what is so wrong with idolatry anyway? Why does God bring such horrible punishment to the Jewish People because of this sin? How can something so stupid as calling a statue a god be a serious sin? After all, hundreds of millions of people in the world actually do this today.

If it could be said that the Jewish People have one main purpose in the world, it would be to teach that there is one God, which means idolatry is wrong. This is what made that particular sin so odious. But why is idolatry wrong? Is it merely a matter of pride that God wants to reserve all of our worship for Him?

The goal in spiritual life is to come to understand the Universal, to contemplate, worship and know the One and Only God. This can never be done through an idol.

Use light as a metaphor. Standing outside on a bright day the sunlight fills the air. We cannot see the light itself, but rather we see what the light reveals to us - our surroundings. Light itself is invisible to the human eye. But we can bend the light through a prism and then on the far side of the prism, we will see the colors of the rainbow. Each color is distinct and beautiful. When we focus on one of the colors, we are ignoring the light.

In this illustration, the individual colors are the particulars while the light is the universal. The universal is the goal, and the colors take the mind away from trying to focus on the underlying light. The idol is a particular. A form. Not the universal.

So we see that the problem with idols is not merely a traditional or stylistic one, but actually that idolatry takes its worshipper away from the goal. The idol can never become the universal. It will always be “other” than everything but itself. The universal goal is to include all, including the worshiper. The worshiper never becomes the idol.

Now, what if anything, does idolatry have to do with cooking a kid in its mother’s milk? Some say that this law is simply a statute, that is, a rule without an understandable, logical reason. Some say that the reason for this prohibition is that idolaters used to relish milk and meat dishes. But if that is enough reason for the Torah forbidding it, then there are many dishes they enjoy. Why is only this one forbidden?

Even milk and milk products without meat have a rabbinical strictness imposed upon them. It used to be that when a Jew would buy milk from a non-Jewish farmer, often the farmer would water down the milk in order to have more milk to sell. Then, to disguise his theft, he would add a little bit of thick milk from a non-kosher animal.

To protect against this practice and to ensure that milk is kosher, there must be a Jew somehow involved in its production. This milk is called chalav Israel (Jewish milk). The milk that was produced without a Jew involved in its production is called chalav achem (non-Jewish milk).

This was the situation until modern pasteurization, sterilization and production line-produced milk became the norm. Since in some places Jewish milk is not available, many rabbis give permission to those who need milk to buy general milk, chalav stam. Why all this background information?

A number of years ago, a dear friend of mine was living in the United States. He had a very young son who was born with a spiritual gift. The boy came into the world with the charisma of a rebbe. Although he was only three years old, all of the other children in his preschool class used to treat him like their rebbe. They would look up to him and ask him such questions as, “What do we play now?” If two of the children were fighting he would merely walk over to them and they would stop.

One day the kindergarten teacher took the class on a trip. When they returned, the teacher said to the boy’s parents, “I hope you are not too fussy about chalav Israel (Jewish milk) because on the trip today we stopped for a piece of pizza. Oh, don’t worry, it was completely kosher, but it was chalav stam (general milk). “

“Oh, no!” The parents cried out. “We would never do a thing like that!”

From that day on, the boy lost his rebbe charisma. He had only one piece of pizza and was too young to even know what he was eating, yet he no longer was a rebbe to his classmates.

Chassidus teaches that chalav stam (general milk) covers over the spiritual heart. This is like putting a veil, even a thin veil, over your spiritual eyes, which makes it more difficult to see spirituality in the physical world. If kosher chalav stam covers over the spiritual heart, how much more so does eating milk that was cooked with meat cover it? This is why this law is in the same portion with idolatry. To worship an idol, whether it was something they made themselves or assigned heavenly power to, people’s hearts must really be veiled over.

From this discussion, we also learn about all laws that are called statutes. It is not that they are not logical, but that they are not evidently logical.

Recently, I asked that young boy’s father where the boy is (spiritually) today. He told me that he believes that the boy, who is now 16 years old, has “gotten back almost all of what he lost, but in an entirely different way.” He went on to explain that the boy demonstrates a unique ability in his Torah learning. He sees things so creatively that often he has a very deep understanding of much of the texts, even deeper than his rebbes’.

[i] Ex 33:18
[ii] Pirke Avot 4:1

Posted at Mystical Paths. Read it elsewhere? Stop by the source.

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