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"Rational Lies1: Idol Worship & Juicy Rationalizations"

(Insights from this week’s Portion: Ki Savo)

  • This Week’s RRR (Relevant Religious Reference): Idol Worship – “Accursed is the man who will make a graven or molten image…”Deuteronomy, 27:15 (in this week’s Portion)

  • This Week’s SSC (Suitable Secular Citation): “I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizationsJeff Goldblum’s character Michael in “The Big Chill”


Just between us, have you ever been to the Philadelphia Art Museum and proceeded to swiftly scale its storied steps, make sure the coast is clear, and then jump around triumphantly like Rocky[2] when no one is watching? No? Oh, then – never mind: me neither. But regardless of your answer to that, now that the Rocky statue stands near the foot of those steps, I suspect that most of you have not felt a strong urge to make a pilgrimage there, prostrate yourself in front of Rocky’s sculpted likeness, and worship it like an idol. [No disrespect to the Italian Stallion[2] intended – his was simply the most prominent local statue that my sports & movie mind could think of]. But back in the day (i.e. ancient times), worshipping statues and idols clearly had a tantalizing appeal. In fact, our inability to relate to idolatry’s allure in the ancient world can be compared to how an asexual alien – á la Spock[3] – might feel upon visiting our planet. He would likely be baffled by the human sex drive and unable to comprehend why it plays such a central role in shaping how we tick. So too, we look back at our ancestors and can’t relate to why the temptations of idol worship presented them with such a seductive challenge. Exactly why was this practice so tantalizing?

Let’s address the question by exploring the “Monotheistic dilemma” – i.e. the inconvenient “side-effects” of believing in one G-d – that idolatry was invented to escape from: 1. THE UNCONSCIOUS DILEMMA OF OUR ANCESTORS: “I kind of like this One-God, Monotheistic morality stuff in theory – but it gets pretty stifling sometimes, especially when it infringes on my personal freedom in areas like sexuality, business, & cuisine…” 2. THE UNCONSCIOUS DILEMMA-SOLVING APPROACH: “Look, I’m not absolutely certain that this One-G-d concept is objectively true anyway! How can we really know? So I might as well seek out alternative beliefs, ones that allow me to pursue agendas that resonate better with my self-interests.” 3. THE UNCONSCIOUS SOLUTION: “Let’s create gods in our own image, which feels much better than embracing an ‘inconvenient truth’ that might not even BE a truth, for gods’ sakes!”


And create gods, they did! Now, let’s think about the “gods” who took center-stage in Greek myths like Homer’s Odyssey! What were they like? Alongside whatever noble values they may have aspired to, these deities routinely conducted their lives with dysfunctional behaviors (such as murder & adultery) that stemmed from human-like frailties and flaws (such as jealousy & lust). But there are major fringe benefits that come with creating and embracing gods like this: the moment we invent them, we are purchasing a license to indulge in whatever activities our self-interests might point us towards! Why? Because if our “worship-worthy” deities come complete with petty shortcomings and engage in destructive activities, why should anything more be expected of me, a mere mortal? Why should I have to be “more Catholic than the Pope”?


The following story[5] drives home the point: A man walked into a forest and came upon a target on a tree, with an arrow pierced through the dead-center of the target’s inner circle. He continued along his forest path, only to find the same bulls-eye scene replicated throughout the series of trees he came across. Eager to find the archer – a person he presumed to have masterfully accessed enlightened secrets of the universe (based on his consistent pinpoint accuracy) – he came across a man who was leaning against a tree. “Are you the masterful archer that nailed every bulls-eye without even a hairsbreadth of deviation?” The man, bearing almost no resemblance to the enlightened looking Guru-type he was expecting to find, turned to him while wolfing down a sandwich and swigging back a beer. Making no effort to pause from his gastronomic frenzy, he responded after a prolonged burp, “You think I hit the bulls-eye even once? I’m actually not such a great shot. But I’m a very sturdy painter. I went out, shot my arrows, and probably hit the trees about 10% of the time. Whenever I would actually hit a tree, I’d take out my trusty paint brush, my 5 colors of paint, and paint a target right around my arrow. This is the only guaranteed way to ensure you can end up perfectly in the center of where you’re supposed to be – every time!”


This story provides us with powerful insights into the underlying force behind idolatry: the human urge for RATIONALIZATION, an intangible form of idolatry that continues to be rampant even in our times. It’s much easier, more convenient, and more expedient to live our lives without bothering to search for an existing target. We would much rather “shoot our arrows” in whatever directions that we please, in whatever ways provide the optimal odds of advancing our personal hopes and dreams. Once the arrows of our actions are shot, we can easily paint targets around them wherever they fall, always reassuring us that we are exactly in the center of where we are supposed to be in life. But Jewish wisdom tells us that it’s self-destructive to rationalize and institutionalize our behaviors by creating philosophies and religions around our desires. And furthermore, Jewish wisdom informs us that there’s no need! In searching for an objective target, G-d doesn’t expect us to be perfect archers – not by a long-shot. It’s ok to miss, and bulls-eyes are rarely expected (if ever). One of the greatest favors we can do for ourselves is to avoid the perilous pitfalls of “all-or-nothing” thinking. All it seems our Creator wants from us is that we shoot our arrows towards His target with integrity, continually striving to improve our aim – bit by bit!

Have a Wonderful Shabbos! Love, Jon Erlbaum & The Chevra

1.The phrase “Rational Lies” is taken from a Rabbi Label Lam lecture of the same name

2. In the epic movie “Rocky” (in which the endearing title character also goes by “The Italian Stallion”)

3. Mr. Spock, of “Stark Trek” fame

4. A fascinating film from 1980

5. Adapted from a famous parable by the Dubno Maggid, Reb Yakov ben Wolf Kranz (lived in the 1700’s)

Text Copyright © 2008 by Jon Erlbaum and

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