Smashing Our Personal Idols: A Message From Our President & CEO

Smashing your personal idols… Lekh L’kha... Go forth…

This has been an emotionally challenging week for many dealing with Yom Kippur, our political climate and increases in COVID cases in many parts of our country. Emotions have risen to the surface and angry discourse and controversy continue at a fervent pace.

I had an interesting meditation sit on Wednesday facilitated by Sarah Hurwitz – yes, the same Sarah Hurwitz who will be speaking to our community next Tuesday, October 6th. She talked about dealing with the upsetting or difficult thoughts that we harbor in our minds and which often translate into our speech. She drew an analogy to these thoughts being like rigid and limiting ‘idols’ in our minds.

The smashing of the idols relates to the story of Abraham when he is working in his father’s idol shop. He smashes all the idols except for one and tells his father, Terach, that one of the idols smashed the others to pieces. Terach’s response was that it was “impossible – since idols are lifeless creature.” Abraham retorted, “if you know they are just works of your hands, why do you worship them?”

In her article, "Smashing Idols in the Jewish Community," Rabbi Laura Baum talks about these idols like “sacred cows." She states, “These cows are the things that seem so essential to the fabric of our own lives – or so intrinsic to the institutions we function in – that we generally can’t imagine living without them.” Sarah Hurwitz used this metaphor of smashing idols for us to challenge ourselves to imagine changing them because it opens the possibility of something new. We have the opportunity to confront the long-held thoughts that may have been with us from childhood – those thoughts that we try to shove down.

Often when we are anxious we feel we are our thoughts. They dominate our thinking and often our speech. Our challenge is to increase our ability to hold these feelings rather than be controlled by them. We need to offer empathy and compassion to ourselves and when we are accosted by thoughts, feelings or words coming ‘at us’, we need to stay centered. This is also the focus of Psalm 27, which we have been reading since the beginning of Elul. In the final few verses of this Psalm, King David is asking G-d, “not to be controlled by the will of my oppressors...”

In Pirket Avot, chapter 1, verse 18, the focus is on the three pillars of this mishnah, which can also refer to the faculties of thought, speech, and action, the “pillars that hold up each person’s private world.” That verse also says, “Justice refers to action – treating your fellow in a fair manner. Truth refers to speech – speaking only the truth. Peace refers to thought – even in the privacy of your own mind, you should be at peace with everyone.”

This is not an easy task either in thought or action. The community is so overwrought with sadness, fear, and animosity, it is often difficult to restrain ourselves both personally and publicly. This is a struggle that I’m sure many of you have experienced.

Speech is addressed in a number of places in the Psalms. For example, in Psalm 12 the commentary discusses that “our sages tell us that the tongue can be both the greatest and worst part of the body, because when the speech of the tongue is good, there is nothing better. However, when the speech of the tongue is bad, there is nothing worse." Psalm 120, informs us that harmful speech can spread very far and have terrible unintended consequences. It is compared to an arrow, once shot can’t be taken back as once harmful speech is spoken, it can’t be taken back.

Thus, in many of our texts we are cautioned about the way we communicate. We must reflect on how our words may land out there for others. At times, I find reflecting on my thoughts difficult as the automatic response is to retreat or push them down. We need to find a place to acknowledge these feelings and not let them overtake us.

These are challenging time with emotions running high. Being at peace with oneself is first and foremost. Making space for these feelings to be acknowledged is crucial. I wish you all grounding to deal with what comes up for you and the resilience to live in peace with yourself and others.

Chag Sameach Sukkot. May this holiday bring joy and celebration into your life.