OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi.



Question.   When I was younger I took great care of my car. One day my grandfather saw me kneeling next to my car waxing it and told me that what I was doing was akin to idol worship. Today’s youth think nothing of spending the night in front of an Apple store to pick up the latest iPhone. Is this akin to idolatry?

Answer.     Any material obsession has its dangers. Our sages say, “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot.” (Avot 4:1). New and better items, be they cars, clothes, games, iPods, etc., may offer momentary satisfaction, but they cannot provide sustained meaning and fulfillment in life.

However, having said this, material things can – in many circumstances – be harnessed for positive self-growth. Judaism is not a religion that believes in eschewing physicality, living like a hermit or joining a monastery. Nor does it believe spiritual thoughts and religious expression should be confined to the synagogue. To the contrary, the world is there for us to engage with, for us to bring Godliness into all aspects of our lives.

A story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was the great defender of his people, able to see the good in every Jew and in every situation. He once saw a man greasing the wheels of his cart whilst wearing tallit and t’fillin.

“Master of the World!,” he said, “What a wonderful people we are! Even when greasing his wheels, a Jew still thinks of God!”

The verse in Proverbs says, “In all your ways know Him” (Prov. 3:6), and even material things like cars and technological gadgets can be part of your religious journey. Next time you take your car for a drive, think to yourself: What mitzvot opportunities does my car present me with? Can I use it to offer a ride to someone else? Can I use it to take me to a shiur? Similarly, when next using your iPhone, think about the applications on offer. Is there a Torah text I can download to read on my train journey home? Is there a call I can make to a friend who is in need? And how about listening to Jewish music and singing along?

So the issue is not one of idolatry. It is how the material item fits in to your entire world-view.



Question.   What do Jews believe?

Answer.     Most people would give the answer, “The 13 Principles of Maimonides”. However, a number of alternatives have been proposed, and there is scholarly debate about whether Maimonides’ Principles are really the last word in Jewish theology.

There are authorities who question the whole notion of Jewish articles of belief and suggest that if you live as a Jew, your beliefs are obvious from your actions. Others wonder how we can separate out certain items from the Torah and not others. From the practical point of view, this explains why some siddurim (e.g. Nussach Ari of Chabad and the Jerusalem rite found in Siddur HaG’ra) object to saying or singing Yigdal, a poem based on Maimonides’ list.



Question.   After Alenu in the Siddur there are three verses in small print. Why are they there?

Answer.     These are the verses:

* “Be not afraid of sudden terror or of the destruction of (or by) the wicked when it comes” (Prov. 3:25).
* “Plan a conspiracy and it shall be brought to nought: speak a word and it shall not stand, for God is with us” (Isa. 8:10).
* “Even to old age I am the same; even to grey hairs will I carry you – I have made you and I shall bear you, I will carry you and save you” (Isa. 46:4).

As the service ends and we are about to return to an often unfriendly world, these verses promise that whatever PORUSHhappens God will watch over and support us. Saying these verses was recommended by a book called Zichron Tziyyon, based on a story in the Midrash to M’gillat Esther.

The story is that the instructions for the annihilation of the Jews of Shushan had been signed and sealed and Mordechai must have been feeling very low. He met three boys coming out of school and asked them what verses from the Bible they had learnt that day. The boys answered with the passages I have quoted. This lifted Mordechai’s spirits enormously and assured him that Haman’s decree would not prevail.

According to the Vilna Gaon (in Sefer Kol Eliyahu), the boys, aware of what was happening around them, had looked for verses to prove that Haman would share the fate of his ancestor Amalek. One boy found comfort in the verse, “Be not afraid”; the second applied a verse that taught that conspiracies against God can not prevail; the third proved that even though Haman thought the Jewish God was too old to help His people, His power never wanes.

Another view sees the third verse as speaking of our old age, not God’s. The Divine blessing goes with us throughout our lives. Unlike the ancient Spartans who abandoned their old people on the hilltops and hoped they would die, God never abandons His people even when they are old.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Blog: http://www.oztorah.com

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