Braced for surgery
This week's portion: not by bread

What we crave (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's Torah portion back in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

This week's Torah portion, Ekev, contains some of the most stirring language in Torah: the exhortation to feel satisfaction and to offer blessing after we have eaten, a reminder of what God demands of us (that we revere God and walk in God's paths), the gorgeous passage that forms the latter part of the Shema. But reading the parsha today I am struck by a line that talks about other people's gods:

You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves, lest you be snared thereby; for that is abhorrent to Adonai your God.

This week's descriptions of conquering and plunder -- God sending a plague against the wicked inhabitants of the land so that the Israelites might dispossess them -- may not resonate for us in this day and age. But these words about coveting and ensnarement, I think, have a lot to teach.

At this moment in Torah, the Israelites have been wandering in the desert for a generation. Their hearts have been swept clean by the desert winds. (Well, at least in their better moments that might be true. Torah also takes pains to remind us that the Israelites are a stiff-necked people who screw up all the time. But I have to figure they were at least a little bit changed by their time in the wilderness even so.) They're poised on the cusp of entering a new land, a new chapter in their history together, and they're going to encounter glorious idols clad in silver and gold.

Intriguingly, God doesn't imagine that the people will fall for the idols themselves. At this point God seems confident that the Israelites understand the difference between the Source of All and some shiny statue, no matter how many precious stones adorn the representations of local gods. But God warns them, through Moses' words, to take care of how they respond to the stuff the idols are made of. They might be smart enough to reject the idols themselves, but how tempting it will be to melt the idols down and keep their precious materials! There's the snare: that irrepressible desire.

It's almost a Buddhist teaching. When coveting enmeshes us, we can so easily become caught. And in a strange way, it feels good. It's a familiar groove to slip into, wanting what the dominant culture values. And wanting feeds more wanting, and before we know it our cravings have overgrown the longing for connection with God. One's heart can only long for so much at any given time, and when the heart is busy longing for what sparkles it is not longing for righteousness and for God.

Craving appears in subtle forms, too. The desire for praise. The desire for fame. The desire to be in control. One of my college professors used to point out, ruefully, that we like nothing better than righteous indignation -- we like to be put-upon so we can puff up our chests and revel in how good it feels to be angry. That's a kind of idolatry, too.

There's a spiritual danger in allowing ourselves to grow so attached to our cravings that we lose sight of what really matters. We each struggle with this in different ways. Sometimes I get attached to the rush of fury that arises upon reading the news, which mires me in toxicity. Maybe you wrestle with the fantasy of always being right, or with the desire for a sleek leather coat. These are manifestations of ego, and when we cling to them we might as well be clinging to the silver and gold of the idols described in this week's parsha.

And, Torah tells us, that is abhorrent to God. We can do better. We can throw the idols we encounter into the fire, resisting the temptation to hoard the things we crave. If we can tamp down desire, just think how much lighter our spirits will be!