Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ki Tissa: Worshiping the Unfamiliar

A couple of years ago, my dog Crosby slipped through the invisible fence surrounding our home. After a tense half hour of searching, we found him near the temple. Unfortunately, he was scared and would not come to me. At that moment a congregant happened to drive up. He got out of his car to see what the commotion was all about - and Crosby immediately bounded up to him.

I've had the opportunity to do some scholar in residence weekends at other congregations. It's so strange. People look at you like you are some sort of... scholar! You can say ANYTHING you want and they think it’s brilliant! It’s downright unnatural! AND you get paid for it! You are held up on this pedestal – and people come up to you to complain about their rabbi (or president, or the other congregation's rabbi). I thought of that quote from the New Testament, that a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.

A story is told about the community leaders of Bialystok, who were charged with finding a rabbi just after the death of their spiritual leader, Samuel Mohliver. Rabbi Meir Simcha was just the man for the pulpit. He had all the qualifications of learning and piety, yet he was turned down by the local leaders. Why? Because he was brought up in Bilaystok and was therefore too familiar to the people in town.

OK – so what does this have to do with this week’s portion?


Moses goes up to top of Mount Sinai. The people become restless without their leader. They are worried…maybe he died. What do they do? So they made a golden calf, a concrete, visible symbol of God.

They could have appointed another, temporary leader – Aaron or Joshua. BUT AARON AND JOSHUA WERE TOO FAMILIAR TO THEM. They sought a new and unfamiliar source of inspiration, rather than the known and the familiar.

Interestingly, the Hebrew term for idolatry became known as AVODA ZARA – strange worship….THE WORSHIP OR ADORATION OF THE UNFAMILIAR. Idolatry in the form of worshipping a molten calf is threat to us in this contemporary culture. But avoda zara, the worship of the new and unfamiliar, is as prevalent as ever.

Crosby proved it to me last week!

In my physical and spiritual journeys, instead of looking for the unfamiliar, I search for the similarities, the connections, the bonds that we all have in common. Given the chance to visit any country in the world, I typically will choose Israel – where everything seems so strangely familiar.

Even when I go to exotic places, my most memorable moments are spent in conversation with people on Italian trains or Parisian cafes, where I discover just how similar we really are. When I read the Bible or history books, what amazes me most are the similarities, the common thread of human emotion that allows me to cry with Jeremiah and sing with David.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll often read a book several times over before going on to something new. Same with TV programs – thank God for TiVo. And as for sports I think I’ve seen that ALCS game 7 in 2004 about 50 times. This season, I’ve seen a number of Celtics games on TV – and a number of them have featured Larry Bird. I’d rather watch the oldies.

That’s why I love the seder so much. Sure things change from year to year – but it’s the sameness that I embrace.

Now, just to be clear – I am NOT advocating that we lose interest in discovery and abandon the unfamiliar altogether. We need to seek the unknown – just shouldn't’t worship it. Every ship that sets sail into uncharted waters needs an anchor. The children of Israel, in creating that golden calf, decided to toss that anchor aside.

Idolatry has changed its form, to be sure. But it still has meaning for us in the 21st century – warning us to keep far away from Avoda Zara, the worship of the unfamiliar.

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