Haftarah Parshat Vaera
December 28, 2013
25 Tevet 5774
Maimonides, in his legal classic the Mishneh Torah, opens his discussion of the Laws of Idolatry with a history of how humanity fell into idolatry. In this introduction, he felt compelled to explain how human beings, who had once been intimate with God, went astray, worshiping things other than God. According to Maimonides, human beings benignly started worshiping God’s creations as a means to further honor their Creator until at some point the Creator Himself was forgotten and all that remained was the worship of created things. (See Laws of Idolatry 1:1)
While one might question this historical construction, there is something profound in the Maimonidean realization that perhaps it is not easy to discern God’s existence in one’s experience of the natural world. It may be much easier for human beings to relate to forces in their lives which are more directly experienced, whether it is the forces of nature or political power. From this vantage point, Pharaoh cannot be faulted for his religious naiveté when he thought himself to be the deity, since he embodied the political power who controlled the land which contained a mighty river: “Behold, I am going to deal with you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, mighty monster sprawling in your channels, who said: My Nile is my own, I have made it for myself.” (29:3)
Still, his vision was based on a delusion. For some, that delusion is like those mentioned by Maimonides, namely, the worship of the immediate source of their bounty. For others, like Pharaoh, they glorify themselves as the ultimate source of their own wellbeing. In both cases, they fail to see the transcendence beyond their immediate experience and are led astray. Ezekiel attacks this approach vigorously, portraying Pharaoh as just a fish in the river he presumes he rules: “And I will put hooks in your jaws, and I will cause the fish in the rivers to stick to your scales, and I will bring you out of the midst of your rivers, and all the fish shall stick to your scales. And I will cast you into the wilderness…” (29:4-5)
This was not just geo-political posturing. There was something larger at stake. Ezekiel was taking a clear stand against the worldview that people, things or even ideologies should be the object of worship taking center stage over all other things. He considered this a destructive belief, antithetical to the tradition that he represented. It is a malady not lost in the modern (or post-modern world).
What turns an affection, association or belief into something negative – idolatry? Absolute and resolute faithfulness at all costs – a blindness to all but the “cause”. (see A. Kasher, Yahadut v’elilut, chapter 2). Ezekiel issued a warning to Pharaoh that making himself a deity would bring about his own downfall and he warned Israel that dependence on Pharaoh as their savior would bring about their destruction. His message should also clearly warn us from assuming that any absolutes that we take upon ourselves are likely to do the same.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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