Parashat Re'eh
Aug 7, 2021, 29 Av 5781
Torah: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17; Triennial 12:29-14:29
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a D'var Torah on the Parashah by Ilana Kurshan called "Of Idols and Ideals", Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "Is He Real?" and Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "Selling Yourself" in the Haftarah.
Of Idols and Ideals
Ilana Kurshan

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moshe issues repeated injunctions to the people to avoid idolatrous practices. When they enter the land of Canaan, a land populated by nations who worship other gods, the Israelites are commanded to destroy their places of worship, as we read in our parashah: “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are about to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods” (12:2-3). In the Talmud, this injunction is interpreted both literally and metaphorically, raising questions about the persistence of idolatrous worship in our own day as well.

The Talmudic rabbis refer to idolatry as “avodah zarah,” alien worship, a term which hearkens back to the “alien fire” that Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu brought to the altar against God’s wishes. Avodah zarah is any kind of worship that is not about the worship of the one God. In the third and fourth chapters of the eponymous tractate, the rabbis explore the ramifications of Moshe’s command to destroy all sites of idolatrous worship, questioning what to do when the object of worship is part of the natural world. What if the idolators worship the sun or the stars or the mountains? To answer this question, Rabbi Yossi, the son of Rabbi Yehuda, offers a close literal reading of Moshe’s words in our parashah: Since the Torah says “whether on lofty mountains,” the sages derive “not the mountains themselves if they are their gods” (Avodah Zarah 45a). If it is a part of the natural world that the idolators worship, then we are not commanded to destroy God’s creation.

The rabbis further explore the commandment to destroy idolatrous sites in explaining the persistence of idolatry in their own day. They relate a conversation in which the pagan Romans ask the rabbis, “If it is not God’s will that people engage in idolatry, why does He not eliminate it?” (Avodah Zarah 54b). The rabbis respond that many of the objects worshipped by idolators serve an important purpose in our world, like the sun and stars. “Should God destroy His world because of fools?” they ask the Romans. The Romans argue that if so, God should at least destroy those objects which the world does not need, such as pillars and posts. Why does God allow these objects to continue to exist? The rabbis respond that if God were to destroy only the pillars and posts while allowing the continued worship of the sun and stars, then the idolators would mistakenly conclude that while the pillars and posts may not have been true gods, the sun and stars surely are. It is for this reason, the rabbis explain, that “the world goes along following its course” and God does not intervene to destroy idolatry.

As this discussion suggests, the objects of idolatrous worship need not necessarily be inherently bad. There is nothing wrong with the sun and the stars, but there is something very wrong about worshipping them as ends in and of themselves.

In our own day, too, we sometimes find that the objects and ideals we enshrine may have tremendous positive value, and yet they become problematic when we place them on pedestals or make inordinate sacrifices on their behalf. We may find ourselves worshipping wealth and status, devoting all our time and energy to advancing professionally while losing sight of the people we are trampling or ignoring in so doing. We may find ourselves worshipping thinness and fitness to an extent that actually harms our bodies and prevents us from appreciating the ways in which food can bring us closer to others and to God. Paradoxically, we may even find ourselves worshipping God in an idolatrous manner, privileging our relationship with the divine over our relationship with other people and ignoring the needs of others because of a single-minded fixation on our own piety. No one would tell us to do away with these ideals entirely, but we need to find ways to incorporate material gain and fitness and spirituality into our lives so that we do not worship them as ultimate ends.

The Talmudic rabbis recognized that idolatry is not just about what we worship, but about the way we worship. They argue that just as an idolator is enslaved to evil desires, so too anyone who becomes controlled by his or her evil inclination is engaging in a kind of idolatry. In tractate Shabbat (105b), amidst a discussion of types of constructive and destructive labor prohibited on Shabbat, the sages argue that “one who rends his garments in anger, or who breaks his vessels in anger… should be like an idol worshipper in your own eyes.” Any time we lose control of our tempers, it is as if we are engaging in idolatry. The rabbis explain this analogy by means of a close reading of a verse from Psalms (81:10), “There shall be no alien god inside you, and you shall not bow down to a foreign god.” They argue that the evil inclination is like an alien god inside each and every person that competes to become the object of our worship; any time we allow it to control us, we are no longer able to worship the one God. And so we engage in idolatry not only when an external object displaces God, but also when our internal passions supplant God.

The biblical prohibition on worshipping other gods and the command to destroy the sites of idolatrous worship serve, for the Talmudic sages, as a way of exploring various forms of alien or deviant worship. Not all of our “idols,” whether external objects or internal passions, are inherently bad. To avoid engaging in idolatry, we must be aware of what we idolize and how we conduct ourselves, ensuring that our values and emotions do not govern or possess us. In a world in which God does not intervene to destroy the objects and obsessions of alien worship, the line between our ideals are our idols is not always clear; we pray for the wisdom and discernment to know the difference.
Is He Real?
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb
Text: Devarim 13:2-6
(2)“If there arises from your midst a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, (3)and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ (4)you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (5)You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him…”
  • The Torah refers to a “prophet,” yet this prophet promotes the worship of other gods. Why might he be called a prophet? How might his arguments appear sound?
  • The Torah does not provide a sign that would indicate who is a true prophet. Rather, this person is a test by God. What is the test and what makes it difficult? Does God need a test to know whether we might follow God? If not, what would be the point of the test? 
  • The [false?] prophet offers a sign to prove his legitimacy. Why do you think that the Torah does not ridicule the claims and signs of the false prophet?

Text: Rashi Devarim 13:4
Nevertheless, you shall not listen (although the sign or the wonder come to pass; cf. v. 3). But if you ask, why then does God give him the power to perform a sign? for the Lord your God is testing you.

  • How does the occurrence of the sign or wonder weaken our faith? Note the words that Rashi inserts between the words of the Torah.

Text: Ramban Devarim 13:4
For the Lord your God is testing you - This is to state that the purport of the wonder which came to pass and which God showed him in his dream… was God's will in order to test you in your love of Him. I have already explained that the term "test" is derived from the point of view of the one who is being tested.

  • Why is the situation viewed as a test by the one being tested, not by God? How is the tested person affected by the situation? Is the test for the individual or the community? (Vs. 2-4a are in singular form in the Hebrew.)
  • In what modern situations might we find ourselves faced with a convincing sign (or reason) that argues for moving away from God? How do we face such “prophets”?
Selling Yourself 
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

There is a most peculiar phrase in this week’s haftarah of comfort. We read, in Isaiah 55:1, “Ho, all who are thirsty go to the water and those who have no money: go and buy grain and eat. And go and buy grain without money, wine and milk without cost.” The context is a prophecy of comfort, the promising of a new covenant and the restoration of the line of David. But it’s unclear what sort of world is being imagined in this verse.

It’s clear we’re talking to an impoverished people. Possibly they lack physical sustenance. The p’shat is that they are thirsty and hungry. Many commentators also suggest they lack spiritual substance, they lack the Torah. As Ibn Ezra puts it, “wisdom is demanded by the soul as food is by the body.” We read of a similar feast to the one described here in Proverbs 9. It is a feast of meat, wine, and bread, rendered poetically. And the one hosting is Wisdom herself, personified as a woman. Many of these prophecies of comfort focus on personified Lady Jerusalem. It is not surprising to meet another personified woman. When we read Wisdom into Isaiah 55, we have a people symbolically eating and regaining their Torah. It’s a beautiful reversal of the images of mothers eating their children found in the literature of destruction. They destroyed their future through their consumption. Here, we gain access to our past by our consumption.

It is not just their eating that is striking here, it is also the focus on buying grain without money. The word used here for buying grain only appears in three other situations in the Tanakh: in the Joseph story, in the retelling of our wandering in Deuteronomy, and in the Book of Amos. In the Joseph story, this word drives plot. Joseph amasses a huge grain supply for Egypt right before the seven years of famine, which he then sells back to the Egyptians and surrounding peoples during the famine. At first, the people buy their grain back with money. But the money runs out, they have no money and they still must buy food. So, they sell their livestock, their land, and eventually themselves into slavery in order to buy food. It’s a chilling example of what it means to buy grain without money.

In Deuteronomy, we encounter the idea of buying grain in the story of our encounter first with the Kingdom of Edom, descended from our kinsman Esau, and then with the Kingdom of Heshbon. In both cases, we are commanded to buy grain with money. We are establishing a relationship between equals, a relationship without favors and a sense of indebtedness. For this, money and fair transactions are useful.

The Book of Amos describes the worst possible version of buying. Here, it is the people of the Kingdom of Israel who are themselves described as food, as rotting figs. And these people are wishing to be able to sell grain, hoping for the end of Shabbatot and hagim so that they can get back to business. But their business becomes the buying up of the poor rather than of the grain. What Joseph did to the Egyptians, the Israelites do to themselves.

Reading these back into the verse from our haftarah, there is a suggestion that we are selling ourselves into a sort of slavery to God, that we are making a covenant with God in which we will belong to God and be dependent on God for sustenance. The upshot of such a relationship is a seat at the table of Wisdom.
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