Ritual Wisdom

Ritual Wisdom 8-17-18

One of the many mitzvot (commandments) recorded in last week’s Torah reading, Re’eh, and in this week’s reading, Shoftim, is the prohibition against worshiping idols.

Moshe commands the Jewish people that they must destroy the idols, the altars, and everything associated with them when they enter the Land of Israel.

Moshe also warns the people not to go astray after false prophets who would try to convince them to worship idols, even if they offer a sign or a miracle that comes true; “Do not listen to the words of that prophet or unto that dreamer of dreams, for the L-rd your G-d is testing you, to know whether you love G-d with all your heart and with all your soul. After the L-rd your G-d you shall walk, and Him you shall fear and His commandments you shall keep and unto His voice you shall listen and Him you shall serve and unto Him you shall cleave.”

The Talmud tells the following story: The Roman Emperor Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva why G-d hates idol worshipers?

Rabbi Akiva replied, “I will give you an answer tomorrow.”

The next day, Rabbi Akiva appeared before the Emperor and said, “Last night I had a strange dream. I dreamt that I had two dogs and I named them Rufus and Rufina.”

The Emperor became furious. “You deserve the death penalty!” he yelled. How dare you name your dogs after me and my wife?”

“Hear what you have just said,” exclaimed Rabbi Akiva. “Although there are many parallels between your actions and that of a dog; you both eat; you procreate as he does; and you both die, yet, if I called a dog by your and your wife’s name you became furious.”

How much more so with G-d Al-mighty Who is the creator of the entire universe. He is eternal and all-powerful, yet you come along and name images of wood and stone ‘God’. Can you expect him to tolerate this? Therefore He despises idol worshipers.”

This week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, which means judges, is always read during the month of Elul, in which we prepare for the New Year.

The reading begins, “Judges and police officers you should appoint for yourself, in all your gates (cities) which G-d your G-d gives to you, to your tribes. They should judge the people correctly. Do not pervert justice, do not show favoritism, and do not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts legitimate words. Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you will live and settle in the land which G-d, your G-d, is giving you.”

Although on the surface, the Torah emphasizes here the importance of appointing honest judges in every city of Israel, there is a deeper meaning here which applies to every Jew. The Torah doesn’t just say, “Judges and police officers you should appoint in all your gates.” It adds the word, “for yourself.”

Our sages say that the Torah implies here that every Jew has to appoint himself/herself as judge over themselves. From time to time we have to judge our own deeds and actions if they are in line with our G-dly mission in this world.

This is especially true during the month of Elul, when we read this Torah reading, and prepare for the New Year. It is a month in which we judge ourselves, how we did during the past year and make good resolutions for the new year to improve.

“But what’s the point of making new resolutions, when we haven’t kept many of the old ones?”

When I was living in New York, my Rabbi once gave a sermon about the significance of the month of Elul and the importance of Teshuvah-repentence. Someone said, “Rabbi, what good is repenting, which I try to do, yet, from time to time I fall back into my bad habits. What purpose is there in my repenting?”

The Rabbi replied, “When a person realizes that they are sinking in deep mud and must get out, they take big steps in the mud trying to get to safe ground. Although, each time the person puts his foot back down, he steps into the mud again, yet, if he stops he will sink completely. But, if he continues, even though he is still in mud, every move will bring him closer to getting out.”

“The same is with repenting and making good resolutions. When you try to emerge from the spiritual mud, you may not see any improvement at first. But as long as you keep on making an effort to emerge, you will eventually succeed. The worst thing is to stop, then you will surely sink in the mud!”







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