Parshas Va’etchanan: Materialism and hidden idolatry

This week’s Parsha, Va’etchanan, tells of Moshe Rabbenu’s pleas for G-d to allow him into the Promised Land. That’s what Va’etchanan means- “and I pleaded”. Despite his heartfelt prayers, and his devotion to G-d, Moshe does not enter the Promised Land, and in fact dies within sight of it. After G-d tells Moshe Rabbenu to desist, and he does so, he imparts further wisdom to the Israelites. He realises that they will have to survive without him, and immediately launches himself into the task of teaching them the importance of the Torah, and providing them with vital moral guidelines. One of these lessons, which Moshe repeats to the Jewish people, is the prohibition against idolatry. The Parsha reads, “take therefore good heed to yourselves, for you saw no manner of form on the day that G‑d spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire… Lest you become corrupt, and make a carved idol, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth… Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the L‑rd your G‑d, which he made with you”.

There’s also a warning against associating with, and marrying, idolaters (“You shall make no covenant with them… For they will turn away your son from following Me”), and a command to remove all traces of idolatry from the Land (“the L‑rd your G‑d has chosen you to be a special people to Himself, above all peoples that are upon the face of the earth…”). It’s quite obvious that idolatry is a mortal sin, as we found out from earlier Parashot. But what exactly is idolatry? Is it limited to carving statues from gold, and bowing down to them? Is it about offering sacrifices to strange figures? Or are there other, more subtle forms of idolatry, which may very well be lurking in plain sight, in modern day Western society?

Unsurprisingly, the last answer is the correct one. Nowadays, it’s somewhat rare for craftsmen to carve figures with the intention of worshipping them, or offering sacrifices. It does happen, for sure, but in civilised society, it’s not exactly widespread. So it’s easy to think that idolatry has died out, it’s ceased to exist. After all, the idea of worshipping a statue is preposterous to many. Contrary to previous misconceptions, it’s now quite widely accepted that even Buddhists, for example, do not actually worship their statues of the Buddha. So in the absence of figurines, what meaning does the term idolatry take upon?

There are actually lots of different examples of idolatry taking place, here and now, perhaps the most obvious of which is the all-too-common worship of one’s bank account. Perhaps we haven’t come that far, after all, because money-worship was present in Ancient Egypt. We find this out through the Torah and commentaries; the reason for the plague which turned the Nile to blood was because the Egyptians worshipped the Nile as a source of income! And today, many people from all walks of life begin to worship their sources of income- subtly at first, in a way that’s hardly noticeable, and people only tend to realise something is wrong when it’s pointed out to them that their job, their vocation, is taking over their entire life. Rather than working to live, they’re living to work. Their routine revolves aorund schedules, meetings, and, of course, pay rises. It all feeds back into the worship of money which we found in Ancient Egypt.

What about other subjects of idolatry? Money certainly isn’t the only thing which has found it’s place as an idol in 21st-century society. What about beautiful objects, for example; material possessions?

Materialism isn’t anything new, either, but it’s fair to say that the past few decades have seen a rise in materialistic tendancies. People need to have the best, biggest, and newest of everything; and they need it now. Nothing but the very best is good enough- and, unsurprisingly enough, when they have the very best it quite quickly becomes outdated, broken, or maybe they just lose interest. One notices that this is quite unlike devotion towards G-d, for He has formed an everlasting covenant with the Jewish people, and is reliable upon when man isn’t. But materialism persists. It’s arguably a part of human nature to be competitive (Wanting the best of everything is a form of aiming to measure up favourably against one’s rivals), and the attraction to beautiful objects is probably at the centre of every trip to a gallery, let alone the jeweller’s store! There’s nothing wrong with admiring fine examples of craftmanship, but the line between natural human instinct and idolatry is very thin.

Perhaps a useful way of telling whether or not one is unhealthily obsessed is to ask oneself how exactly they prioritise the said interest, collection or worldly pursuit. Is it one’s reason for living? Is it hard to stop thinking about it during Mincha? Is it changing their routine and outlook on life? These questions can help one to determine how exactly they view something. Because while having interests and pursuits is completely normal, there’s a certain regard which should be reserved only for our Creator. Once we begin to blur these lines, we run the risk of transgressing the prohibitions found in Va’etchanan.

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