Modern & Ancient Idols

Rabbi's Message - February 15, 2022

Rabbi Tina Sobo

HALT!  This is one acronym that was briefly mentioned in my learning in rabbinical school, but is very important.  It comes, I believe, from Recovery programs, and stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired – it’s a mnemonic for emotional states which make temptations – such as one’s “substance of choice” – harder to say no to.  In essence, they are emotional states that may cause us to make more impulsive decisions.  For those without substance use disorder, eating the whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in front of the TV instead of going to the gym after a bad day isn’t the worst choice in the world.  However, remembering to take an extra moment to decide in these states – especially one that has more consequence than cookie dough ice cream -  can prevent a lot of harm.

This week, our Torah portion – Ki Tisa – famously recounts the incident with the Golden Calf.  Chapter 32 opens by telling us that the Israelites saw that Moses was taking a long time up on Mt. Sinai.  They rally around Aaron, and request that he make them a god because they don’t know what has happened to Moses.  You know the story from there.  The people, I imagine, may not have specifically been hungry, angry, lonely, or tired – but these states can imply insecurity.  They are emotional states we get into when our security – our basic needs – are not met.  Like us, insecure emotions lead easily to impulsive action. 

Now, I don’t imagine most of us are tempted to erect and worship a Golden Calf when we are feeling a bit lonely or restless.  This makes the second commandment in the Decalogue, seemingly easy. (Don’t make an idol, right?)  I think that commandment, and the crux of the Israelite’s sin with the Golden Calf, was not so much the sculpture itself, but the feelings of insecurity, and shifting trust from God to something else.

Scott Shay, in his book, In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism, suggests that we could define idolatry as anything that falsely attributes superior and inexplicable power to finite processes, animals, and people.   Idolatry could refer to “anything that you elevate to a unique status of power or authority,” which makes it one of the “most divisive and dangerous” ideologies in the world.  Shay is less concerned with bowing down to figurines, as much as metaphoric “bowing down” to money, public figures, group-loyalty, or more.  This is far more common in our current society than statues of Baal and other Canaanite deities, in my opinion.

As we consider the Decalogue (10 Commandments) from Sinai, and the Golden Calf this week, along with the shattering of the first set of Tablets – do you think the commandment about idolatry applies specifically to owning or worshiping a graven image, or perhaps does it have broader application?  What would it look like to attempt to eliminate clinging to modern “idols,” especially when we are feeling particularly insecure?  What are our Golden Calves?

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