Sunday, November 12, 2006

Wash Your Feet (VaYera 5767)

When begging his unexpected guests to accept his hospitality, Avraham asked them to wash their feet before resting in the shade of a nearby tree. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, notes the reason for this odd request; he was concerned that his three visitors were idolatrous nomads, committed to worshipping the dust on their feet. Repulsed by the notion of admitting even the faintest association with idolatry to his house, Avraham asked them to rinse the dust from their feet before entering. We chuckle as we read this Rashi, confident that early idolaters must have been complete fools for believing that the dust on their feet had some kind of divine power. How could anyone be so stupid? This raises a broader question – we read much in the Torah about idol-worshippers and their encounters with the embryonic Jewish people. Is it true that they were nothing more than coarse, man-made images; their devotees no more than irrational primitives? This seems unlikely, particularly as to qualify as idolatry, an act must involve a concomitant declaration on the part of the idolater that he regards the focus of his act as his god. This requires recognition that the idol possesses power and manifests aspects of divinity. Did the ancients believe that carved images had these qualities? It seems highly improbable. Why then was the dust on the visitors’ feet so important to them?

The Ben Ish Chai offers an attractive interpretation. He posits that before embarking on a journey, the ancient idolater would visit his temple to offer sacrifices to his god to invoke the deity’s presence on route. He prayed that the god would accompany him during his expedition, protecting him until he had reached his destination. In the mind of the idolater, he would follow the spirit of his god, which would walk ahead of him, so that every step he took in the dust had previously been trodden by his god When he arrived safely at the end of his journey, he expressed thanks to his god by worshipping the dust on his feet, which was the most tangible representation of his deity’s presence during his travels. Only then would he rinse his feet after his journey. According to this analysis, the dust, rather than being a god itself, carried an important association with his deity the idolater. It became sanctified through contact with the god, rather being a source of power in its own right. We find this explanation easier to comprehend than the possibility that the idolater may have regarded the dust itself as a god. The Rambam commences his legal code on this subject with an overview of the history and development of idolatry.

Perhaps his reader, living in a post-classical-idolatry world, would find it hard to relate to the subject matter that follows without such an introduction. He writes that in the times of Enosh, people made the first in a series of errors that led humanity towards full-blown idolatry. The leaders of the generation noted that God had apportioned honour to the sun and moon by giving them very significant roles in creation. Hence, they reasoned, it must also be the will of God for human kind to likewise honour them, by building temples in which to bring offerings to them. At this stage, they worshipped God indirectly, by relating to His ‘servants’, the luminaries. After some time had elapsed, false prophets arose, who claimed that God had instructed them to build temples and bring offerings to a particular star. Once these were built, it was only a small step to the claim that the star itself had spoken to the prophets, was capable of independent thought and thus made religious demands on the people. At this stage, the link to the one God was broken and idolatry spread throughout the world. Whole generations of children grew up oblivious to the existence of God, completely indoctrinated into the ways of the idols and their temple cults.

Perhaps a single theme underlies the whole of this dismal progression; Man finds it extremely hard to relate to a transcendent, invisible God. He seems so distant and unapproachable. It is attractive to anthropomorphise God, thereby making Him seem more ‘human’ and hence within reach. Judaism, however, understands that Man has the capacity to overcome this challenge and to form a real relationship with God, despite His apparent inaccessibility. The need to create an image of the divine that can be grasped by mere mortals has characterised religious systems throughout history. This idea enables us to achieve a more mature understanding of our subject.

The Maharal observes that the prophet (II Melachim 1:3) refers to ‘the master of the fly - god of Ekron’– indicating that there were people who worshipped the fly as a god. What quality does a fly exhibit that one should possibly feel in awe of it? The Maharal notes that people believed that they could not create a relationship with the holy God, so instead chose something mundane, as unholy entity, to which they could relate. Since this entity was closer to their own experience and world, they felt that they could find religious meaning and expression through it. Some chose the fly, others, apparently, chose dust. These represented forces in the non-physical world, rather than ends in themselves. The dust is a particularly interesting case, for it is the lowest physical part of the earth. The idolater felt that he could best reach out to the Divine by grasping the layer of experience just beyond his own – the lowest dimension of the spiritual world. This was represented by the lowest element of the physical world – the dust itself.

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