Tree of No Life: Shoftim 2017

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Do we care for symbols more than we should? Do you agree with George Carlin’s famous assessment that “symbols are for the symbol-minded”? Or are symbols important ways to simply communicate what means most to us?

In our portion this week, the Torah reminds us that symbols cannot replace “the real thing” – and certain symbols are forbidden:

The Pitch: “You shall not set up a sacred post – any kind of pole beside the altar of the Lord your God that you make – or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests.” – Deuteronomy 16:21-22

Swing #1: ‘You are to see the beauty of a holy place in its sacred character, and not look for external trappings such as beautiful landscaping or impressive edifices. If you find it necessary to beautify a holy place by such superficial decorations, it is an indication that you lack appreciation for the true beauty of holiness. Similarly, the Sages say that ‘anyone who engages a judge who is not worthy is considered as if he had planted an Asherah beside the altar’ (Sanhedrin 7). If, guided only by superficial considerations … one engages a judge who lacks the qualities of scholarship in the Law, piety and morality required for that office, it is truly as if one had ‘planted an Asherah beside the altar,’ for then one has cast aside the inner beauty of Torah and the fear of the Lord for superficial, alien trifles.” – Avnei Ezel

Swing #2: “The prohibition of 16:21 led to the rule that no tree be planted nor house be built on the Temple mount.” – Moses Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot

Swing #3: “An asherah [is] a name which stands both for the goddess and for her cultic symbol. The Ras Shamra texts mention the goddess Asherah as the consort of the god El, and in the Bible she is the consort of Baal. The asherah itself was made of wood, cut into shape by man, and could be burned. Apparently, it could also be a living tree planted by man and uprooted by him; but, far more commonly, it was a wooden object …” – Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, which at what point does deference to a symbol lead to idolatry? Are there symbols today that steer us away from God? If so, what are they, and how do we allow them to become so prominent?

The Big Inning at the End: The Los Angeles Dodgers are 90-36. This is a staggering won-loss record. They are on pace to win 116 games, which would tie the all-time win mark, achieved previously by the 1908 Cubs and 2001 Mariners. Of course, neither of those teams won the World Series …

Shabbat Shalom!