Rage Against the Material

The Course of Empire Destruction, 1836 by Thomas Cole | via Wikipedia

There is an anachronistic story in the Talmud in which Rav Ashi, a 4th Century Sage from Babylon, engages the infamous Judean King Menashe  in a debate. Rav Ashi, shocked by King Menashe’s knowledge of Jewish law, had to ask how such a great Torah scholar could commit one of the gravest sins in Judaism by worshiping idols. Menashe rebuked Rav Ashi, saying, “If you would have been there, you would have lifted up your coat to run and serve idolatry.” Apparently, in earlier, more biblical times, the temptation to commit idolatry was much stronger than in later times. The Talmud does explains that this is because the Great Assembly, the group of 120 men who led Israel after their return from the first exile, prayed for this temptation to go away, even going so far as trading away the ability to have prophecy. Thus, idolatry, as they knew it, was gone.

If this were true, the warnings of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, not to accept foreign gods, seems inapplicable to us today. We do not need to worry about it—who commits idolatry anymore anyway? Unfortunately, while idolatry in the traditional sense, that of worshiping sticks and stones, may be gone, other, more insidious, forms of idolatry have risen to take their place.

As I have argued in the past, idolatry was a religion based in materialism and physicality. People did not go to the man-made statues out of love or a desire to do right, they went to try and get something out of it. When the old idolatry died out, what died was the belief that these sticks and stones could give them what they wanted. Did this make things better?

Sadly, not by much. All this does is cut out the middleman. The desire for wealth and success, for the material, did not die away. I won’t deny that some good can come from this, just like in college when the middleman gets busted, some people end up going clean. The people that are really into certain extracurricular activities won’t be stopped though, they’ll just go to the middleman’s source. Some of them will even become the new middlemen. When we cut out the old idols, the most materialistic in society will just replace it with a desire to gain wealth, power, or fame, and on the road to doing so, idols become the Apples and Justin Beibers of the world.

Parshat Re’eh tells us to destroy idolatry completely. Tear down their altars, burn the trees they worship, and smash the idols. We learn in the parsha, and throughout the Tanakh, that destroying idolatry also often meant destroying everything in the city. By destroying everything, there can be nothing to claim. This is the most extreme rejection of materialism. Alongside telling us to destroy idolatry, Parshat Re’eh also gives us many other commandments, many regarding food, telling us when and what we can eat. Others tell us directly to sacrifice certain cattle and crops, and if this is not possible, money should be given in their place. The message is: Don’t give into your material desire for instant gratification, taking for yourself whatever you want.

Parhsat Re’eh tells us how to conquer our materialism. Throughout the parsha, we are told that when we are enjoying our wealth, we should not forget about the Levites who have no property, or those who are less fortunate than we are. We’re even told that we must give to the needy, even if they ask for a loan and there is very little chance that it will ever be returned. We must take those objects that we enjoy, those things that we place such great value in, and share them with others.

The destruction of our materialistic idolatry comes in two steps. The first is rejection. With whatever we are giving, money, food, our free time, we are saying “I don’t need this.” The second piece is replacing that materialism with a much more important value. To whomever we are helping, we are saying, “I care about you.”


David Gutbezahl is a student at Gratz College.

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