Monday, August 8, 2022

Parashat Vaethanan: Destruction, construction and the Image of God

 Parashat Vaethanan: Destruction, construction and the Image of God, Av 5782 
(Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)


In the covenant between God and Israel, hardly any transgression is as serious as idolatry, as Moses warns repeatedly in his predictions of what will come to pass after he is no longer on the scene; for example:

Do not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman... (Deuteronomy 4:16 and others following)

And also in the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters below the earth. (Deuteronomy 5:8).

In the Haftara, Isaiah addresses the issue from a different angle, and emphasizes that the very effort to depict God using inanimate materials is doomed to failure (quoted below). The gap is too wide to be bridged.

Does this mean that God has no representation on earth?

In an article “Religion and Race”(reprinted in Insecurity of Freedom) first published in 1963, Rabbi
Abraham Joshua Heschel cries out against the violence directed at the family of James Meredith (the first Black student at the University of Mississippi), quotes the Ten Commandments and continues:

James Meredith,
accompanied by federal officials,
enrolling in the University of Mississippi
(Library of Congress)

And yet there is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God. It is not a temple or a tree, it is not a statue or a star. The symbol of God is man, every man. How significant is the fact that the term tselem, which is frequently used in a damnatory sense for a man-made image of God, as well as the term demuth, likeness—of which Isaiah [in this week's Hafatara] claims (40:18), no demuth can be applied to God—are employed in denoting man as an image and likeness of God. Man, every man, must be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing the King of kings. (emphasis, SMZ)

This idea is is especially important in the week after Tisha B'av. I holds a key to destruction and rebuilding.

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Due to three sins: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed... 
Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of baseless hatred.
 (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b)

Following Rabbi Heschel's train of thought, forbidden sexual relations (in which I would include all sexual and gender-based violence) and bloodshed are crude, violent acts of desecration. The baseless hatred for which the Second Temple was destroyed, moves the desecration from external violence into the human heart.

That is the destruction. How do we rebuild? By internalizing that every human is an image of God. In Midrash Tehillim (chapter 17) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi claims that angels walk before each person and proclaim: “Make room for the image of the Holy Blessed One.” Make room to respect the person in front of you.

We could make a significant contribution to the healing the deep divisions in our society, if we were to make the effort to see the image of God standing before us in every inter-personal interaction, not only with people similar to us, when that’s relatively easy, but also with those who are different. Not yielding to them or agreeing with whatever they say or do, but rather carefully responding in a relevant and respectful manner. 

Just imagine what could happen if everyone involved treated each other as if they were images of God. The substance of the dispute would remain unchanged, but the path towards resolving it would be transformed. This is a complex personal, social, and spiritual challenge. Even if we make the effort, we won't succeed every time. But every success, no matter how small, will bring healing to our wounds.  

We are in the midst of another fifth election cycle because the previous four did not lead to decisive results. The substance of the debates remain as they were, but if we learn to honor the divine image in each one of us, the path toward a solution will be transformed.  

Change depends on us. The effort is enormous, but also essential to ensure our continued existence in the Land of Israel.

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