Parashat Va’etchannan 5778

Rabbi Jackie Tabick – 27 July 2018

In the United States, the Birmingham Temple describes itself as being the centre of the humanistic expression of Judaism. That is, according to their own website, they espouse a philosophy of Judaism that affirms the power of individuals to achieve a meaningful and ethical life entirely within themselves and other people; they have a liturgy emphasizing Jewish culture, history and identity along with ethics while excluding all references to God. Even their bimah is adorned with a large work of art spelling Adam or Humanity in Hebrew letters.

Knowing all this, when a friend visited them, they were amazed to find beautiful mezuzah cases on sale. Mezzuzot of course, usually contain a parchment bearing the words of the Shema, ‘Hear oh Israel, the Eternal is God, the Eternal is One’ (Deut 6:4) a text which come from this week’s sedra, but words that would seem to fly in the face of humanistic teaching. So my friend questioned the lady behind the counter as to why they might be on sale. ‘Ah’, she said, ‘it doesn’t go beyond our philosophical understanding of Judaism because we don’t sell the parchment most Jews place inside a mezuzah. Instead, we see mezzuzot simply as beautiful objects that temple members can put on their doorposts, not a religious statement’

Empty mezzuzot? They seem not only to be missing the parchment but missing the point.

The text in Va’etchannan is incredibly strong in its condemnation of those who worship other gods, in other words, idolatry. In the Torah idolatry is described in fairly traditional style, as meaning the worship of statues that cannot perform even any of the simple physical functions of life, let alone be responsible for creating the universe. But over the years, this straightforward definition of idolatry was extended to the practice of abrogating too much status to human beings. For are we humans so good, so perfect that we should be worshipped? Now, humans in Judaism are seen as the pinnacle of creation. We are taught that the way to show our love of God is to show love for God’s creation, especially human beings. Pikuach nefesh, the saving of human life, is regarded as more important than almost any other mitzvah. But to put humanity on the highest pedestal of all? That, Judaism equates with idolatry. To me it is important to acknowledge that we are not the be all and end all of creation, that there is some sort of unity behind the world, a unity many call God, that calls upon us to see ourselves as part of a greater whole and that expects us to go beyond ourselves and our own needs and to seek the greater good of creation.

But it all takes work. Again as it says in the sedra, ‘If you search for the eternal your God you will find him… but only if you seek that God with all your heart and with all your soul’. (Deut. 4:29)

So let’s go back to that empty mezuzah case. The problem with that empty case doesn’t really end with just enclosing the parchment that bears the right words. Nor does it even end putting up the mezuzah, or even noticing it, or touching it as we go in and out the doorway. Because the mezuzah case is really only a symbol of something far more important, it’s a reminder of the Eternal One mentioned within that parchment and the demands that Unity has placed upon us we to try to better that creation, to protect the vulnerable and to seek holiness in our lives. Otherwise, we too would be little better than just an empty case, with nothing of value within!

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