Monday, September 24, 2012

Shabbat Shuvah: The Foreign Gods of Today

“The Eternal said to Moses:

You are about to sleep with your fathers,

and this people will rise up and go astray

after foreign gods, where they will go to be

among them, and break my Covenant . . .

and many troubles and evils shall befall them.”

Devarim 31: 16, 17

As Jews, we are now in the midst of the Ten Days of Turning, the days between Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate the Birthday of the World, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn holy day of the year. The Sabbath that falls between these two holy days is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath on which rabbis and maggids (preachers) commonly give a sermon on the art of turning and returning to the path of righteousness.

When the Engineering Geek and I took a few moments for Torah Study on Shabbat, with all of what had happened in the past weeks in mind, we noticed a part of Parashat Vayelich that the Women of Reform Judaism’s Torah Commentary remained silent about. Devarim  (Deuteronomy) is set as Moses’ last speech, with some interpolations that move the story along. In Vayelich (He Went), Moses learns that he has reached the end of his long life, and that he will die before the people Israel enter the promised land. The Women’s Commentary therefore focuses on what this means for Moses, and the reasons given and implied for his death at the moment of his people’s freedom.

But given the stark choices that confront us all in the world today, and the contradictory and craven behavior of our Executive  Branch in the face of the renewed attacks on the United States through our embassies--attacks used to threaten our most basic freedoms--the Engineering Geek and I focused on the passage that the commentary passed over. In it, a prediction is made by the Eternal. The people will cross over, and they will build lives in the land, and become complacent (“. . . they shall have eaten their fill and waxed fat. . .”, 31:20), and that is when they will be vulnerable to turning away from their heritage and their purpose, and follow after foreign gods that they have not experienced. When this happens they will, the story predicts, forsake the Covenant, and bring upon themselves many “troubles and evils.”

In encountering this story, we ask ourselves, what are foreign gods in the context of our identity as Americans today? Most of us do not literally bow down to idols of wood and stone made by our own hands. And many of us bow down to no gods at all. Further, this passage is about what happens when many members of a society make a choice to change their basic beliefs about their civil identity, and forsake the heritage given them by previous generations.

In Hebrew, the United States is known as Artzot ha-Brit shel Amerika, ( ארצות הברית של אמריקה) the Land of the Covenant in America. This is a recognition that our unique identity is forged not by blood ties, but that who we are is based on our choice to abide by a set of ideas that are protected by an contract, the Constitution of the United States.

On September 11, 2001, many of us were rudely made aware for the first time in a generation that our ideas about who human beings are and what we define as the good life in our civilization were under attack; that another set of ideas opposes ours, and that proponents of those alien ideas are willing to make war upon us, and to fight and die to see that their ideas prevail in the world. On that day, as the towers fell, we instinctively drew together, and the day after, we put up our flags and remembered that we were Americans.

As the EG and I talked about all this, we realized that we Americans had grown complacent indeed, and that we have been in the process of forsaking our Covenant of respect for individual rights, thereby giving up cherishing the uniqueness of each individual, and had begun to turn away toward concepts foreign to our native values. This hankering after dependency and collectivism, the easing of responsibility and individual liberty, was possible because we forgot the origin of the wealth and innovation that made our comfort and ease possible. In so doing, we were turning to foreign gods, ideas that are in opposition to our Covenant, and cannot possible co-exist with it.

Islamic thought, with its focus on totalitarian submission to a theocratic state, has developed from premises alien to our enlightenment values, and is driven by a civilization that is not at all complacent or passive. Islamic teaching emphasizes the necessity of bringing the whole world into submission to ideas that are incompatible with our own. Our Western forbearers have resisted these idols before, at Tours with Charles Martel, and twice at the Gates of Vienna. 

But now, with our Covenant weakened by dreams of collectivist utopias, we see our leaders actively chasing after alien ideas, appeasing our enemies with apologies, and proclaiming a willingness to surrender our basic rights to foreign gods. We must rethink our liberties, they say, in the face of the Ba’al of the Riot and the Mob. It is our children whose birthright of freedom is to be sacrificed to satisfy the insatiable fires of the barbarian hordes.

And yet, there are those among us who have sounded the alarm that there can be no compromise with those who wish to supplant our values with their own, and no surrender without the total loss of our American identity. Like the prophet in the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, they tell us:

“Asshur shall not save us . . .neither will we call anymore the work of our hands our gods . . .”

“Give not your heritage up to reproach, that the nations should make you a byword; Should they say among the peoples: Where is their G-d?”

We cannot make treaties with the alien thought of Egypt and Libya and at the same time retain our own unique identity. Foreign ideas and values cannot be assimilated without destroying our own. Oil and water do not mix, and nobody can compromise with poison and live.
It is one or the other, and we must not listen to those who would so lightly surrender our liberty, our values and principles to those who would destroy us. 

It is amazing how the struggles of old, couched in religious language, are relevant still, and tell the same stories that we experience, although we tell of them differently. 
Just as Israel of old had to choose or be broken on the contradiction between her identity and that of the idols, the same is true for us today. We must choose rightly or be broken on the contradiction between our own values and those of Egypt and Libya and the whole of the Muslim Brotherhood with its Islamist nightmare. Liberty and submission cannot be combined. Individual rights will not co-exist with the Ummah, the collective nation of the Islamic State. 

It is my hope that in this season of turning we gather the courage to say what is real, and  to acknowledge the truth in our hearts. And that we do not close our eyes to the troubles and evils that are about to befall us, and that we recognize that they are a consequence of the fact that we are in the act of forsaking our Covenant, the one that has made us the envy of the world and an inspiration to among the nations.

We need to wake up and to recognize how greatly we have prospered by the values and principles bequeathed to us by our founders, so that we can preserve our liberties and bequeath our inheritance—the Covenant of Rights and Liberties—to our posterity.

This remains my hope in the face of growing darkness.

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