Breaking the Mold of Bad Religion
“Speak to the entire congregation
of the children of Israel
and say to them:
as I, Hashem your G-d, am holy.
Everyone shall respect his mother and father,
and you shall observe my sabbbaths;
I am Hashem, your G-d.”
|| Daber el kol adat
| benei Yisrael,
| ve’amarta alehem:
| kedoshim tiheyu
| ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheichem.
| Ish imo ve’aviv tira’u
| ve’et Shabtotai tishmoru
| ani Hashem Eloheichem.
One of my greatest joys I have in my life is that I often get the opportunity to talk with people about their faith and connection to Judaism. One of the main staples of Jewish outreach is to remind people of the wonderful values that have served one’s fore-bearers well and which they still benefit from. I remind people to stay true to one’s heritage, informing them of the Torah’s stern words in Deuteronomy 13 that we are not to follow after gods that our forefathers did not know to serve them, instead we are to cleave to our own G-d (see Deut. 13:3,7).
For the most part this is a good word of advice. Most people can agree that despite all the colorful hangups of Jewish neurosis, there is something wonderful about the experience worth honoring. But not all of us come from such ideal backgrounds. When it comes to religion, some of us have really been challenged with bad displays of faith in action through the lives of our own parents. Because of this sometimes it’s really hard to connect to our religion. Sometimes our way of looking at our own spiritual heritage comes clouded with all kinds of negative experiences and sentiments.
For those who have these challenges, reading the introduction to this chapter can be very difficult. We are told that we must respectfully fear our parents to honor them and also to keep Shabbat, as if they go hand in hand. It might look as if one command is dependent upon the other. Some of us can say to ourselves “if you only knew the type of people my parents were you wouldn’t be telling me this.” Maybe because they didn’t honor Torah living. Or maybe because our parents observed their practice of Torah in a harsh and calloused way that we don’t find it at all admirable.
Our sages were very practical people, they realized that unfortunately this would be the case for some people. In the Talmud we find our rabbis actually take this verse from that angle. In Talmud Balvi Yevamot 5b we have a discussion related to verse 3 of our parsha. It notices that the command to honor one’s parents and to honor the sabbath are paired together. It also notices that respect of ones parents precedes the command to observe Shabbat. Our rabbis note that though we are first commanded to respect our parents, this does not mean that it is more important than honoring Shabbat. We are told that if this was true then our parents could tell us to do things to desecrate the sabbath and we would be bound to follow. No, instead we are told that “ish / everyone,” each person, is required to keep the sabbath for themselves; parents and children alike. Of course, we understand that the sabbath is used as representative of our entire faith, because it is that central to our tradition. Our rabbis present this verse in a way that teaches us that if we are outright told to do something wrong by our parents we are not to obey them. Because “you” are to do what’s right, it has nothing to do with them.
In one’s defense one might want to say “Hey I don’t have any good examples, I’ve been cheated. How do you expect me to display all these good values when I wasn’t taught right?” We might feel that we were left up the creek without a paddle. But the Torah doesn’t just leave us there, it gives us some good words of direction to follow if we are looking for them:
“Do not turn to the idols
and do not make yourselves molten gods,
I am Hashem, your G-d”
|| Al tifnu el ha’elilim
| ve’elohei masechah lo ta’asu lachem
| ani Hashem Eloheichem
We see here that we are told not to be turned aside, meaning to not let ourselves be distracted. What are we not to be detracted by? We are not to let ourselves be detracted by idols, false displays of deity and spirituality.
For me it even seems to go much deeper. Notice the word “masechah,” which we translate as molten. What it means, is to be poured (masach); the contents of the metal is poured into a mold and cast. We are not to allow our vision of G-d to be molded in the distorted form that we saw it come from before. Quite honestly, this is probably one of the hardest things for people of spiritually challenged upbringing to wrestle with. Though we don’t like the way culture and beliefs were shaped for us, we can often tend to unknowingly pour our feelings into the same distorted crucible and end up with the same misshapen results. Others intentionally make a cast iron “strawman” out of the bad example to justify why they are indifferent; this too is an idol. Instead we are called to break the mold, and let godliness take on a new shape in our own lives by finding out who Hashem our G-d is.
Rashi expounds on this point when commenting on the words “lo ta’asu lachem / you shall not make for yourselves.” He agrees that it means that we are required not to follow after falseness that we make for ourselves. But he points out that it is more that just that, we are also not to follow after any form of idol even if someone else makes it for us. Just because someone sets up a bad example for us, we are not given a pass. No, we are just as responsible for being distracted by our idols just as much as being turned aside by those of anyone else.
Once we let ourselves grow beyond the hardness of this type of rigid religion then we can find it possible to move on to the next trait we should model.
“And when you offer a
peace offering to Hashem
you shall sacrifice for your acceptance”
|| Vechi tizbechu zevach
| shlamim l’Hashem
| lirtzonchem tizbachuhu
This is a bit of a complicated phrase, and being a bit out of touch with ritual sacrifice the meaning is not exactly obvious at first. But a peace sacrifice was not one that was offered because of sin, it was an optional sacrifice. It was a sacrifice that one took upon themselves, being in good standing and clear of sin or impurity one could bring such a sacrifice of their own accord and allow the priests and their own guests to take part in a good will offering they would all dine upon. It was not a sacrifice of a broken person, it was a sacrifice of a whole person.
What the latter part of verse 5 means is that we should be willing to worship of our own free will. Not because we feel guilty for anything, nor under any form of obligation. Instead we grow to the point that we can stand on our own two feet and with dignity and pride approach G-d on our own terms and for our own pleasure. When we give up the rigid idea of G-d we will see that we don’t do all of this spiritual stuff to gain the acceptance of G-d, we already have that. Instead it’s for us to walk in the dignity and privilege of approaching our Maker and our community as whole people. In Judaism not only do we have a place at the table, but being ourselves is a reason enough to celebrate even in the most sacred of ways.
This parsha is called kedoshim, to be holy; plural. The command to “kedoshim tiheyu / be holy” is commanded of all of us. It’s not a job in the singular. One person doesn’t make or brake the bank when it comes to holiness. Each one of us needs to do our part to be the better person that we aught to be. It’s about you, not about them.
Movie clip of the week…. when Jewish parenting goes wrong… in the words of my therapist, “how do you feel about this?” :