Our daughter Noa Sarah celebrates her Bat Mitzvah this week with Parshat Lech Lecha. As we prepared for this day, we were contemplating what to wish her. Like all parents, we pray for her health, happiness and success, and, like all Jewish parents, we hope that she will be a proud contributing member of our communities, nation and people. These are heartfelt wishes, yet ordinary. We also wanted to give her a blessing that is uniquely hers, connecting this moment of her Bat Mitzvah to our past and our future and making Lech Lecha hers for a lifetime.
Indeed, this Parsha is one of the most dramatic in the Torah. In its beginning, HaShem commands Avraham to leave the place of his birth and the house of his father in order to go to a distant land that he will inherit. He is also promised that he will birth a people and father many nations, and ultimately be a blessing for the families of the earth. These are iconic verses.
On this journey, Avraham, together with Sarah, are to introduce humanity to a transformative idea that there is only one God. They were alone in their outlook facing the challenge of eradicating idolatry, namely the belief in superior powers of stones, trees and people.
It took a huge amount of faith to accept this mission and to embark on that journey of leadership. While the first two Hebrews were on one side of history, everybody else was on the other. Together, they embody what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks calls the willingness to be ‘other,’ which is the essence of Jewish leadership. That leadership in humanity is to be exercised through the People of Israel and from the Land of Israel.
We tend to think that idolatry, Avodah Zara, belongs to the past or persists among less developed societies. As Jews, we may associate idolatry with the gods of Ashur and Ba’al or with Egypt’s Pharaoh and Greece’s Zeus.
Yet idolatry is eternal. In his recent book, In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism, Scott Shay establishes that idolatry continues to be the most divisive and dangerous ideology in the world, as it subjugates people to elites that have power because they control resources such as a river in ancient times, knowledge in the twentieth century or an algorithm today. Then and now, people outsource their judgement and discretion to political leaders, gurus and rock stars.
HaShem, Abraham’s one God, represents the alternative outlook. It assumes that all people were created equal in the image of God and that no person can willingly enslave their body or mind to another human being. This is why Judaism rejects any form of dominance and chauvinism and mandates a permanent quest for justice in a model society. If God is everywhere and nowhere, with no beginning or end and with no shape nor form, then godliness is to be found in how we live our lives and treat others: parents, spouses, children, friends, strangers, the poor, nature and animals.
The eternal existence of idols is an eternal challenge for humanity and an eternal opportunity for leadership by the Jewish People. As Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe wrote in Sefer HaMitzvot HaShekulot: “the sphere of Avodah Zara is much more expansive than worshiping a star or an idol.” This is why to this day we study Tractate Avodah Zara. As Shay points out, the Torah is a living call for all of us to be suspicious of and to stand up against idols as they present themselves in our private lives and at large. Indeed, as Jews, we have plenty of work to do, as well as a giant body of philosophy and law to work with.
The challenge of idolatry is only growing with the acceleration in the pace of change, which creates uncharted territories for people, communities and societies. In last week’s Parshat Noach, we read about a charismatic leader, Nimrod, in a time of a new technology, brick-laying, who mobilized his people to conquer nature by building a tower from the valley to the sky so that they could wage war against God. This ambition turned society immoral to a point where, as Rashi says, a brick was more important than a human. Indeed, with every revolution that shakes the foundations of society, uncertainty rises and with it the desire for false certainty that is provided by idols. With them grows the need for people of morality to stand for what is true and just.
Against this backdrop, our wishes for Noa Sarah are straightforward: to be able to call out idolatry when she encounters it throughout her life, in school, at university, at work, in her community or society; to have the courage, wisdom and values to be ‘other’ and to make a difference; to always quest for godliness in her life; and to do so with a unique voice of an Israeli and a Jew.
Finally, there may come a moment in her life where she may need to let go in order to create something new. If and when that moment comes, we wish upon her that she will know how to Lechi Lach.