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Sermon: Parshat Re'eh, 8/30/19

09/01/2019 11:07:04 AM


Rabbi Charlie

I talk often about the Jewish values we find in Torah. Giving Tzedakah, caring for those who are sick, offering hospitality. I also teach about how we cannot ignore the more difficult parts of the Torah – the ones that might feel uncomfortable to our modern ears. Passages such as this one from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh:

“You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are 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, obliterating their name from that site” (Deut 12:2-3).

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz of the Orthodox Union explains that this is a mitzvah because “idolatry is a huge affront to God and we should…be appalled on [God’s] behalf!” So we should “destroy idolatrous places wherever and whenever we have the opportunity to do so, but one need actively pursue the opportunity only in Israel” ( And yes, that is a modern commentary.

In the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 45a), Rabbi Yosei HaGelili places additional limitations on this mitzvah, teaching that we only have to destroy the created idols. A group of people may worship a mountain as a god, but we don’t have to destroy the mountain itself. I’m sure that sets everyone’s mind at ease.

The book of Joshua is even worse – there we are commanded to kill basically everyone we encounter – the people, not just the idols. It’s quite jarring to see such intolerance in our sacred texts; just as it’s quite jarring to see such intolerance in so many areas of American society today.

Unfortunately, I was not surprised when I read about some media personalities celebrating or making jokes about the passing of David Koch this past week. You may have agreed or disagreed with him politically – but he’s a person. He had a family. He died of prostate cancer – a painful, deadly disease. If you don’t feel his memory should be for a blessing, just don’t say anything.

We see intolerance from President Trump and many other political figures. We see it on social media; we see it throughout our nation and our community. There’s so much intolerance that sometimes we might get fed up – follow the mitzvah we read in the Torah and smash anything that upsets our sensibilities. Or perhaps, we could understand the teachings about idolatry from the perspective of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Rabbi Art Green tells the story (Radical Judaism, p. 121-22) of Rabbi Heschel explaining why the Torah was so concerned with idolatry. Heschel taught that “it is precisely because God has an image that idols are forbidden. You are the image of God. But the only medium in which you can shape that image is that of your entire life. To take anything less than a full, living, breathing human being and try to create God’s image out of it – that diminishes the divine and is considered idolatry.”

So why aren’t we fans of idolatry? Because instead of trying to make something into God’s image, we can only be God’s image. When it comes to idolatry, we first remember what it means to be human and remember the humanity of others. Stressing this point, Heschel also teaches “My first task in every encounter is to comprehend the personhood of the human being I face, to sense the kinship of being human, solidarity of being” (Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, “No Religion is an Island,” p. 239). This provides context and guidance when it comes to how we treat people from other religious traditions and everyone we encounter – we treat them as people first.

But if it turns out that the person before us has become enamored with the false idols of today’s world – egotism, greed, hatred, and especially intolerance – smashing those idols may not be a bad thing. But think first. 20th Century philosopher, Karl Popper, (in Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1 – Quote and discussion found here) encourages us to start with rational argument. Disagreement and even getting offended is permissible. But if a person or group begins by denouncing all argument, refuses to engage in rational argument, or responds to rational argument with violence, we have to be able to “claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

We see people as people first. We have to remember their humanity. And we also have to keep our eyes open to the intolerance that exists in our world today and respond appropriately. It’s not always easy to know how to do this. That’s why we need to work through it together. Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, January 25 2021 12 Sh'vat 5781