Getting out of the way

Parashat Re-eh 5771 - Friday, August 26, 2011 - Posted a little late

Shabbat Shalom!

I am starting with two stories tonight - one about me, and one about Moses - please don’t get the impression that I am drawing any comparisons whatsoever.

Many of you know that I used to do a lot of cycling. Last year, while on a long training ride, coming down a very big hill in Tahoe, and going pretty fast, I approached an intersection where someone made a left turn in front of me. I wasn’t really cut off, but I began to get a little irritated. With my heritage as a recovering inhabitant of New York City, I almost offered a rude gesture in response to my near-inconvenience.

On that same ride I had been listening to some music on my phone, in this case a song by a band called Gogol Bordello. One line in that song is: “There is no us and them”. That line stood out as I realized that this person driving may have had other things on her or his mind. Perhaps they had an emergency, maybe they didn’t see me, and more importantly, if we are all in it together, if there is really “no us and them” then this event on the road wasn’t about me. I stopped the process of getting irritated, and had a better day because of it.

Moses had an anger problem. Way back in the book of Numbers, Moses faces a horde of grumbling and complaining and most importantly, thirsty, Israelites, and provides water for them from a rock. Instead of following God’s instructions and speaking to the rock, invoking God’s name, Moses strikes the rock with his staff to bring forth the water. Considering how annoying the Israelites have been, hitting something didn’t seem like a totally unreasonable reaction, and yet God uses this incident to refuse Moses entrance into Israel. That day, Moses may have thought it was all about him and his importance in front of the people, not about the people and their needs.

So Moses understands the importance of getting out of the way, of not being in the center, of identifying with the bigger picture that includes everyone. Moses spends the entirety of the Book of Deuteronomy sharing his version of the lessons we need to succeed without him.

This week we read from Deuteronomy, particularly Re-eh. Here’s a little section:

12:2 You are to demolish, yes, demolish, all the (sacred) places where the nations that you are dispossessing served their gods, on the high hills and on the mountains and beneath every luxuriant tree;
3 you are to wreck their slaughter-sites, you are to smash their standing-pillars, their Asherot/Sacred-poles you are to burn with fire, and the carved-images of their gods, you are to cut-to-shreds- so that you cause their name to perish from that place!

This is not the first time Moses rails against idolatry, and certainly won’t be the last time a prophet stands in front of the Israelites telling them to avoid idol worship, or abandon it.

Why does our Torah focus so much on this, and what can we do with it today?

Certainly few of us erect tree idols in our homes or back yards, so what can we learn from this?

Let’s expand our understanding of idolatry beyond the simplistic idea of bowing down to physical idols. The attachment of importance, too much or too little, to things and people inappropriately, seems like a good working definition of an idolatry for us to avoid.

Perhaps Moses struggled with this most - he placed too much importance on himself, his hurt feelings, and his abilities, and too little on being part of the group.

How many times do we take a suggestion, a friendly or constructive one, as criticism? Couldn’t it just be that our friends and family really want to help us out? What kind of difficulties might we avoid by seeing a comment as an offer to help, instead of a critique?

How important are our feelings, our sense of self, in the context of working in a team where we all aim to succeed, even if that team might be our closest family?

So the idolatry to avoid becomes self-importance. We often tell each other that we need “thicker skins” as a way of living with comments that may or may not be directed at us. When we take ourselves out of the way of the comment, we need not absorb it. We are no longer in the center.

Even better, let us see whatever the interaction may be as good for the group. When there is no us and them, or “no ‘I’ in team”, then we can pull back to a bigger picture and see ourselves as the beneficiaries of a comment meant to improve the whole, as opposed to the target of a criticism.

Let’s forget being thick skinned, and move towards seeing ourselves in a bigger picture.

Let’s get out of the way, leave an idolatrous treatment of our self behind.

May this Shabbat bring us opportunities to reflect on our place in the long view, allow us to better see the forest for the trees, and not mistake ourselves for the object of all things. In growing a little smaller, may our lives grow bigger.