Today was Tu B’Av, sort of a Jewish Valentine’s day or Sadie Hawkin’s day. It was ruined for me by two separate attacks of religious and nationalist extremists in Israel that were deeply disturbing. Aside from the horrifying nature of the attacks at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem and the arson of a Palestinian home resulting in the death of a baby, there was another common denominator.
It’s connected in an unusual way with one of the seemingly superficial differences between the 10 Pronouncements as expressed in tomorrow’s Torah portion and the original report of revelation in Exodus.
The most famous work in Jewish mystical canon, the Zohar, notes the 4 Hebrew letters, vav, that connect the last 5 commandments. This letter is normally translated as ‘and’. In the first appearance of the decalogue, Murder, Adultery, Theft, Perjury and Coveting are isolated graphically by spaces and literarily; they are technically separate sentences. In our portion, they are connected by the four Hebrew ampersands.
The Zohar notes that in between the first and second telling, among many other things (such as 38 years wandering in the desert), the sin of the Golden Calf was responsible for the connectivity between the left tablet’s injunctions. Before the quintessential transgression of idolatry sins were more isolated, more easily compartmentalized from one another; one might commit one without being led to another.
One commentator notes that prior to the golden calf, our capacity for evil was not extinguished by the revelation but given a significant assist, a fighting chance as it were, by the revelation at Mount Sinai. The idea was that we might sin but that each sin would not pave a road for further transgression. The molten, gilded calf changed all that: it created the infrastructure, the auto-ban for the supercharged Ferraris of the evil inclination. Now each sin leads to the other almost automatically without significant effort.
In the wake of two acts of religious hatred this past 24 hours, it’s important to note that idolatry can be prevalent among the religious as well as those who refuse to profess. Although the stabber of 6 youths at the gay parade might justify his recidivism with verses from the Torah, he has created an idolatrous fetish of a single verse. It’s worth noting that many orthodox rabbis, who presumably agree with Schlissel’s reading of scripture, hastily condemned his act of violence. I once visited someone in jail who couldn’t stop talking about the evils of gay sexuality from a religious perspective and I asked him how he felt about honoring his parents, an area in which I knew he was lacking. Clearly he had created a fixation, a fetish, out of this issue.
Further, the burning of a Palestinian family home with the resulting murder of a baby was a result of a different kind of idolatry: Revenge. It was written in Hebrew letters on the house in black paint with a Star of David.
The most prominent of changes between the Exodus and Deuteronomy version of the Ten Pronouncements is not the 4 vavs of the Apocalypse but the content and tenor of the 4th commandment about Shabbat. In Exodus we are told to Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy as an expression of Imitatio Dei, because God rested after creating the earth. In tomorrow’s portion we’re commanded to keep the Sabbath because we were slaves in Egypt. Whether the reason is gratitude to God for liberating us or sensitivity to those less fortunate who need a day off by remembering our own servititude is up to the reader.
But thanks to the events of the past 24 hours and my reading of the commentaries surrounding the Zohar, I have another interpretation of the signficant change between the two expressions of Shabbat observance.
Once we have accepted that something other than God is God, we have no business imitating the divine, playing God with violence. We’re much safer keeping the day of peace and rest as a sign of gratitude and a reminder of where we come from and who we are. Idolatries of intolerance and revenge have no place on this day or any other.