The Relationship Between Moral Degeneracy and Idolatry
And Hashem said to Noach: The end of all flesh has arrived before Me for on their account the world is consumed with violence. I will destroy them with the land. (Sefer Beresheit 6:13)
Parshat Noach deals with the Deluge and its aftermath. The description of the events that led to Hashem’s decision to destroy most of humanity begins in the final verses of Parshat Beresheit. The Torah describes humanity’s degeneration as a three step process. The initial step is described in Parshat Beresheit. In this stage, sexual mores were abandoned and adultery became commonplace. According to the Sages, the abandonment of these mores ultimately resulted in sexual deviancy. At this juncture, the Torah describes Hashem extending to humanity a period of one hundred twenty years in which to repent. If humanity does not repent by the close of this period, then it will experience a severe but unspecified consequence. The second step in the process of humanity’s demise is described as a shift in the focus and values of humankind. In this second stage, no new degenerate behaviors are described; instead, this second stage is described as an obsessive preoccupation with the pursuit of the lusts developed in the first stage. In response to this second stage, Hashem specifies the consequence awaiting humanity. If humanity does not reverse its course, then it will be annihilated. Parshat Noach describes the final stage of humanity’s deterioration. In this stage society begins to collapse as violence proliferates. At this point, Hashem initiates the process that will eventually climax with the Deluge.
The concurrence of sexual deviance and idolatry
Our Sages comment that the abandonment of sexual morality was accompanied by an adoption of idolatrous practices. Of course, it is possible that the introduction and proliferation of idolatry in conjunction with the abandonment of sexual barriers was coincidental. However, the possibility of an interrelationship between these two forms of deterioration deserves consideration. Sexual abandon and the violence that ultimately lead to social collapse are both expressions of an inability or unwillingness to exercise control and restraint. In contrast, idolatry is a theological error. The ancient idolaters believed that Hashem exists; however, He wishes that we serve Him through the worship of His ministers – the stars, constellations, the sun, and the moon. Why would a collapse of self-control and the consequential hedonistic behavior be accompanied by a theological miscalculation?
The G-d of the Torah
The Torah approach to understand G-d and relating to Him is unique in two respects:
1. The Torah requires that we discover and encounter G-d as an objective reality. This means, we understand G-d as the intelligence evidenced in the majesty, and complex intricacy of the universe and as Hashem who revealed Himself to the Jewish people and humanity in an unprecedented and never repeated public revelation at Sinai. The Torah opens by presenting G-d as the solution to the mystery of the universe’s origin. The Torah’s narrative continues by describing the unfolding of the Creator’s plan for humanity which reaches its climax with the Sinai Revelation. Both creation and Revelation are carefully presented in the Torah as objective truths and not as legends or traditions. We are invited – indeed we are compelled – to confirm for ourselves the validity of these truths.
2. The nature of our encounter with Hashem informs the manner in which we serve or worship Him. We do not determine the form of acceptable worship or service based upon our own needs. Instead, we must submit to His will and serve Him as He requires and commands.
These two paradigms are antithetical to idolatry. Maimonides explains that idolatry evolved from the simplistic reasoning that humanity should fashion its service to Hashem after the manner in which a human king wishes to be served. A mortal king expects and demands that his subjects revere and serve his ministers as an expression of their veneration for and obedience to their king. The early idolaters applied this model to service to Hashem and established worship of stars, constellations, and other creations that they understood to be G-d’s ministers as a fitting means of serving Hashem. However, this simplistic analysis is essentially and deeply flawed. It diverts our encounter with G-d from the objective framework. It refashions the worshiper’s perception of G-d. G-d is no longer the unfathomable cause of all existence. He is replaced by the more familiar model of the mortal king. The idolater may still understand G-d as the Creator. But he relates to G-d as a more powerful or exalted version of the familiar mortal king. In other words, in forming a relationship with G-d, the idolater forsakes the objective for the familiar.
Similarly, the idolater’s worship of G-d is no longer predicated upon the desire to fulfill His wishes and directives. Instead, it is designed to create a relationship with G-d that feels familiar and comfortable to the worshiper – a relationship that serves the needs of the servant. Worship loses its very essence. It is not an expression of the worshiper’s submission to G-d. It is a process designed to serve the needs of the worshiper to relate to a G-d who is familiar and easily accessible. Ultimately, the idolater has reworked his concept of G-d so that rather being an objective reality, G-d has been transformed into a projection of the needs of the idolater.
The path from idolatry to sexual immorality
Our relationship with Hashem demands that we look past our personal and subjective feelings and seek truth. We are called upon to search for and devote ourselves to a relationship with a G-d whose nature we cannot fathom and whose wisdom we cannot penetrate. We are commanded to resist the temptation to refashion Hashem and thereby reduce Him to a G-d to whom we can more easily relate. The idolater rejects these imperatives. His most fundamental relationship – his relationship with his creator is nothing more than a projection of his personal needs. The idolater who has fled from objective reality and retreated into a reality of his own imagination and construction is predisposed to flawed moral judgments. In his relationship with G-d, his feeling and personal needs have already triumphed over his grasp of objective reality. It is not remarkable that the same obsession with personal need may also obliterate any sexual restraints.
The path from sexual immorality to idolatry
However, the path from sexual immorality to idolatry is even more direct. Our relationship with Hashem requires that we hold in check our desires to the extent that they color our perceptions of reality. The intellect does not easily attain this freedom from the influence of desire and instinct. The intellect fights a pitched battle to attain its freedom. Even if and when it liberates itself, it must constantly be on the lookout. Its triumph is never so complete that it can let down its guard. If a person over-indulges his desires and abandons restraint, then the battle becomes more desperate and the intellect quickly losses ground to the person’s feelings, desires, and instincts. Sexual immorality and the discard of sexual boundaries represent surrender to desire and instinct. A person who adopts this lifestyle will quickly lose any and all ability to apply an unfettered intellect to the objective assessment of reality. A hedonist, totally immersed in the pursuit of pleasure, is not capable of profound intellectual cognition. He is certainly not prepared to form a relationship with a Creator who reveals himself to the intellect as the inscrutable cause if all existence. Also, it is unimaginable that this person can enter into a relationship with his Creator predicted upon submission to objective truth.
In summary, there is amble reason to assume that the moral disintegration of the generation that experienced the Deluge and its adoption of idolatry are interrelated. The two forms of degeneracy actually complement and support one another. Idolatry encourages immorality. Idolatry represents a flight from and rejection of objective reality. Objective reality is replacement with personal subjective perception. Once this occurs, the idolater is predisposed to self-indulgent behavior and moral decline. Immorality breads idolatry. The hedonistic lifestyle is antithetical to humanity’s encounter with its Creator. This encounter requires us to think deeply and clearly. The hedonist is ill-prepared for this endeavor.
The sixth day of Creation was “very good”
Last week we read Parshat Beresheit. The parasha describes the creation and formation of the universe in seven days or stages. The description of each stage ends with Hashem observing that the completed stage was “good”. However, at the completion of the sixth day, the Torah records that Hashem saw that the day’s creation was “very good”. Our Sages are intrigued by the distinction made between the first five stages which Hashem characterized as “good” and His pronouncement upon the sixth day – that the product of the that day was “very good”. Midrash Rabbah records that many Sages interpreted the term “very” as an allusion to some element of the universe created that day which is not specifically mentioned in the Torah. These Sages proceed to offer suggestions of possible elements of creation – not explicitly mentioned in the Torah – that were included in the creation of the sixth day. One Sage suggests that the term “very good” alludes to death which was introduced and incorporated into creation of the sixth day.
The Midrash continues and explains that death plays an important role in our individual and collective development. It reminds us that we are limited creatures. It encourages a degree of humility. We realize that our lives in this world are finite and this recognition informs and helps fashion or self-perception and our values. We naturally dread and fear our own demise, but our cognizance of our mortality is crucial to our spiritual, moral, and perhaps, every aspect of our personal and collective development.
According to the Midrash, death is part of creation. It is as much a part of the nature as the rising of the sun and the gravitational pull of the moon upon the oceans. The Creator reveals Himself to us in the complexity and intricacy of the universe. He is revealed in the movement of the constellations and the rhythm of the tides. He is evidenced in seasonal migration of a flock of geese and in the tenacious survival of brilliantly designed sea creatures in the depths of the deepest oceans. He declares Himself with the birth of a child, with the development of that helpless child into a functioning adult. And death also is an expression of Hashem’s meticulous and judicious design of the universe.
But we realize that the very laws that Hashem created to sustain us sometimes turn into our cruel adversaries. The forces that shaped the continents upon which we have built our societies produce earthquakes and seismic events that have devastated entire communities and cultures. The complex elements of climate that provide the rains and warmth that nourish our crops can suddenly produce terrible storms or devastating droughts. The antibodies that day after day protect our bodies against deadly disease can turn against us and destroy our own organs. This realization compels us to recognize our dependence of Hashem. It is the catalyst that moves us to prayer and prompts us to consider our actions and our behaviors before our Creator.
Sometimes our prayers are answered. Sometimes they seem to go unnoticed. There are occasions when we realize only after a long period of time that the response we mistook for silence was really an expression of Hashem’s kindness and mercy. Finally, there are times when Hashem seems to hide from our prayers and ignore our pleas. We pray knowing only what we want for ourselves. Hashem responds knowing what is good for us and for all humankind.
The Navi describes Chizkiyahu as more righteous than any of the Kings of Yehudah that preceded him. He conducted an extensive campaign to elevate the spiritual life of the Jewish people; he devoted his life to Hashem and serving his nation; he was scrupulous in his service of Hashem and observance of the commandments. In response to his righteousness, Hashem delivered Chizkiyahu and the remnant of Israel from the dominance and conquest of the Kingdom of Ashur and bestowed his blessings upon the Jewish nation and its king.
Chizkiyahu was 39 years old when he was stricken by a mortal illness. He turned to Hashem and prayed that He spare him. Hashem responded to Chizkiyahu’s pleas. Through the prophet Yeshayahu, Hashem told Chizkiyahu that He had granted him fifteen more years of life. Chizkiyahu arose from his deathbed believing that his prayers had been completely answered.
Knowledge of Chizkiyahu’s unusual success and achievements spread through the region. The King of Bavel sent a delegation of high-ranking ministers with gifts to Chizkiyahu as an expression of his admiration and esteem for the King of Yehudah. Chizkiyahu treated his important guests to a grand tour of his treasuries. He showed his visitors all of the riches of his kingdom and the wealth that had been amassed during his reign.
In response to this episode, Yishayahu returned to Chizkiyahu and told him that he had sinned gravely. He had been presented with an opportunity to extol to his guests the greatness of Hashem. They had been sent to Chizkiyahu because their king – the King of Bavel – was astounded by Chizkiyahu’s achievements. He was seeking an explanation, an accounting, for these phenomenal accomplishments. Chizkiyahu had been presented with an unparalleled opportunity to sanctify the name of Hashem by explaining that He was the source and cause of all of his success. But he squandered this opportunity. Instead of exalting Hashem, he glorified himself. Yishayahu proceeded to announce the punishment that Hashem had decreed. In days to come, Bavel would seize the treasure that Chizkiyahu had amassed. Chizkiyahu’s children would be exiled and become servants of the King of Bavel. Chizkiyahu acknowledged his sin and accepted the justice of Hashem’s judgment.
What possessed Chizkiyahu to waste this opportunity to glorify the G-d to whom he had devoted his life, the G-d that had rescued him from his adversaries and delivered him from sure death? Perhaps, the constant adversity with which Chizkiyahu was confronted fostered his profound awareness of his own limits and his reliance upon Hashem. As ruler of a relatively minor kingdom surrounded by hostile neighbors, he accepted and embraced his dependence upon Hashem for survival and prosperity. Paradoxically, the very adversity that compelled him to turn to Hashem was one of the cornerstones of his righteousness. Once success had been secured, peace established, and his own life was vouchsafed, this cornerstone became unstable. Awareness of Hashem and his dependence upon His kindness receded just enough for Chizkiyahu’s own ego to emerge.
The Navi is communicating to us a profound lesson. We pray to Hashem for the fulfillment of our desires. But we can never know the extent to which our prayers have been answered or if they have been ignored. Seeming answers may be less or more generous than we realize. And the response that seems to be absolute silence may be the greatest act of mercy.