I sit alone at the end of the long wood dining room table. The amber glow of the dimmed chandelier and the smell of fresh coffee wafting from the steaming ceramic cup by my side are welcoming settings for my early morning routine of Torah study. Outside is still dark. Before me lies a leather-bound book, very large and heavy, of ancient Jewish and mystical teachings. I search for the red satin string that marks the page where yesterday’s lesson ended and where today’s must begin. I open the holy book and always feel awed and comforted by merely looking at the beautiful letters of the aleph beit that spill open before me. The concepts are complex and not always easily absorbed. I look away to ponder the teaching and search my brain for familiar understanding, for a point of reference. I stare and stare into the cozy glow and low and behold, a devil is looking back at me. Yes it is a devil, I’m sure of it. There are not one now, but four. I jump up from my seat to investigate. I’m in shock. Why have I never noticed this before. Here in the dining room of my childhood home, my mother’s home, stands a beautiful ornate expensive mantelpiece clock which has four devil heads that serve as its feet. I was quite certain, even for art’s sake, that this was not permitted in a Jewish house. The devils were multiplying. For I then noticed that two matching candelabras were also supported by these horned heads. I now had 12 devils to deal with. And so I do what I do best, I bother a very busy respected rabbi with the likes of questions that only Aliza can have. “Dear Rabbi, I have an odd question, but I guess in Judaism there are no odd questions. Here goes…… Is that idol worship? Should I and can I remove just the legs and throw them away or have I created an issue where there is none?”
Friends for 30 years, those items decorated our home, neither I nor my mother, the acquirer, ever noticed that an idol was in our midst. I think of the years we celebrated holidays in that room, the years my father prayed there and donned his tefillin, all the years I studied Torah in that room and then I think of the devil holding up “time,” i.e., that clock, and I’m not pleased. The rabbi replied. My “odd” question indeed had an answer. The faces had to be smoothed down to destroy the semblance of a graven image or alternately they could be removed altogether. As the Second Commandment states: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” G-d’s law is pretty clear, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Judaism teaches, however, that idols are not just statues and graven images. Idols are anything that we worship that comes between man and G-d. Materialism, beauty, fitness, money, the government, politics, the army, physicians, etc. can all be considered idols if we empower them with the belief that they are what sustain us and not the Will of G-d. Idol worship does not preclude belief in G-d but assumes that some things exist in their own right apart and separate from God’s holiness. Judaism teaches there is nothing but Him, ein od milvado. If we relegate Him as merely G-d of the synagogue, no wonder many are no longer afraid of Him nor serve Him in the other buildings of our lives. i.e., the courthouse, the bank, the hospital, our living rooms, our offices. In addition, how often do we really examine our environs and take a good look at what is “decorating” our lives and whether we are surrounded by idols both physically and perceptually? What is coming between you and G-d? Greed? Laziness? Ego? Jealousy? Hedonism? Apathy? I can’t help but think how even the American dollar, the idol of idols that many revere as a god, is smarter than we are, for even the mighty buck itself declares “In G-d we trust.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we learn that in exacting revenge upon the people of Shechem for the rape of their sister, two sons of Jacob kill every man in the city, rescue their sister and then plunder the city of its riches, including items of idolatry. Jacob demands of his sons, “Discard the alien gods that are in your midst… And they gave Jacob all the deities of the nations that were in their possession and the earrings that were in their ears, and Jacob buried them.…” Rabbi Norman Lamm describes this as a cathartic and important episode worthy of replicating in our own lives. Imagine we too stand before a huge pit and are asked to throw in our idols. Would you even recognize them? Look at your life and examine what is not Jewish in it, what you have picked up from foreign cultures and ideologies and what is disruptive as regards your service to G-d and thus a priori to your better self. Your artwork, your vanity, your technology, your wardrobe, your food, your sexual behavior, your conversations, your compulsion control, your habits and more, where do they all stand in relationship to the G-d that mandated, “You shall have no other gods before Me”? Would you be like Jacob’s sons and be able to cast off the “idols” that feign favor and friendship but slaughter like a foe. Do you worship foreign gods to fit into a society only to discover through anti-Semitism that you were not meant to fit in. “"Be holy to Me…. I will thus make you separated for Me, to be mine from amongst the nations." (Lev. 20:26)
Truly a case of eyes wide shut as 30 years later I notice what was before me all this time. I’m sure G-d Himself opened my eyes because with great intensity and honesty I’m trying increasingly hard to do the right thing in His service. I couldn’t help but think of Abraham, the father of monotheism who smashed all the idols in his father’s shop. It was my turn now. Friends, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury idols, not to praise them: What are the devils that are serving as legs in your life and where are they leading you? All that surrounds us has an impact on our souls. When we muffle the source, G-d, how can anything in our life have clarity? Our task is to identify the idols in our life and destroy them. Don’t give them a leg to stand on.