Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wash your feet

“Take a bit of water and wash your feet”

Bereshis 18:4


“Avraham assumed that the angels were Arab’s[i] who worship the dust on their feet, and made certain that no idolatry would enter his home.”

Rashi ad loc


The Arabs in the time of Avraham worshiped the dust of their feet. This sound incredibly strange – what on earth could possibly be the reason for this? R. Yaakov Emden[ii], explains this behavior based upon the concept taught in Bereshis, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Man is dust. Thus, the Arab’s worshiped the dust of their feet. Explaining this is difficult. What exactly was the nature of this worship? What did they believe and why did they act this way?


The Gemara gives us some insight into the modes of worship of other idolaters as well.  Baal Peor is mentioned often in the Torah. What was Baal exactly? The followers would eat and drink laxitives, so that their stools would grow soft. They would then sit before the idol and relieve themselves. This was the way to worship Baal Peor.[iii] The Gemara tells us that Jews only worshiped idols (such as baal) in order to rationalize to themselves Gilui Arayos (illicit sexual behavior) in public.[iv] In other words, the Jews did not deeply believe that the idol was a true god, but worshiping it did something to make their psyches more comfortable with the idea that they could engage in Giuli Arayos. Why on earth should defecating in front of an idol have such an effect on a person?


We will answer these two queries with a look at a Midrash.[v]


Avraham was working in his fathers idol store, and people would enter. Says the Midrash, “One man entered and asked ‘How much is that idol?’ Avraham replied, ‘3 maneh.’ Then Avraham would ask the man, but how old are you? The man said, ’30.’ Avraham replied, ‘Can your ears hear what is coming from your mouth? This idol was created yesterday, and you wish to worship it?!’ Another man entered and asked the price of a second idol. ‘5 maneh,’ Avraham told him, and then he asked, ‘how old are you?’ ’50,’ the man replied. So again Avraham said, ‘Can your ears hear what is coming from your mouth? This idol was created yesterday, and you wish to worship it?!’”


I have several questions on this Midrash. Firstly, why is the price of those idols germane to the Midrash. The Midrash does not record Avraham wishing thme good morning, which one is obligated to do even toward and idolator! This, of course, is because it has nothing to do with the message of the Midrash, and therefore is ommited! But then why is it important that they asked the price of the idol? And why was it that the Midrash tells us of people asking for prices related to their age? The 30 year old 3 maneh, the 50 year old, 5 maneh - surely this is not a coincidence! Lastly, and most importantly, were these people completely stupid? Everyone knows that the idol was created recently when they enter an idol store! In fact, they chose the idol store that they found had the best idols. So when they came in they must have known that the idols were not there from the beginning of creation. There idols clearly represented a form of worship. So what changed? What was Avraham’s argument that was suddenly so convincing?!


The answer to this question answers all of our questions. Idolatry was about worshiping oneself in sense. The fellow who went to the bathroom on his idol made a loud statement. I can do anything I want. Even in front of my idol. He was also showing his lowliness. You see, if someone is entirely insignificant, then nothing that he does really makes a difference. I am nothing and I can do whatever I wish is essentially the same statement. Those who worshiped idols essentially worshiped themselves. They did what they wanted to when they wanted to do it. The Jews did not worship idol out of an honest seeking for truth. They were drawn after that philosophy by their drive to rationalize any behavior. In our times, we see that those who can explain that man is no more than an evolved paramecium, can then rationalize any sort of aberrant behavior, for after all, who cares what man does in the privacy of his own home  any more than a rat does in the privacy of his own sewer? Avraham’s customers would buy idol that related to their stage and state in life. If they were 50, the price of their idol would have to match that, for they were “celebrating man,” in today’s parlance. Avraham replied to them, “but your whims are not eternal. You were born only 50 years ago, and your whims were born yesterday!” Avraham inspired his customers to seek the eternal truths, and not to worship the dust of their feet.


We live in a society where we are taught that the highest of values is the pursuit of happiness. We are taught to dream of what we can all want, and then build towards it. How often are we told that what we want does not really matter? How often do we hear that we are not here to worship ourselves - to give in to our every whim? It is the Jew who brought this idea in to the world. We are here to answer a calling more deep and noble than the fleeting thought. The Jew tells the world that life is not only about what we may or may not want, but about choosing right over wrong, good over evil, and truth over falsehood.


Man is made of dust, but he also has a soul. His body will go back to dust as his soul ascends to its maker. Arab’s in the time of Avraham worshiped the lowest part of man, for they were essentially worshiping themselves. Man is dust, so they worshiped dust. Avraham taught us all that man is also divine, and thus he ought to worship Hashem.

[i] Gilyonei Mikra (R. Aaron Sonnenschein) wonders how we can say that Avraham assumed that they were Arabs, when the Torah traces the lineage of the Arab people to Yishamel explicitly (Bereshis 23:16)? He quotes C.D. Chavel’s footnote in his edition of Ramban where he brings R. Ovadiah Sforno who explains that they were “like the Arabs that we see today,” but not that they were themselves Arabs.

[ii] Hagahos to Bava Metzia 86b. Other reason are offered. R. Yeshaya Halevi Hurwitz (Sheloh) explains that since they worshiped the sun, they also worshiped the scorched sand, and Maharal (in Gur Aryeh) says that it was because they were tent-dwelling travelers who did not believe in settling down.

[iii] Sanhedrin 64b

[iv] Ibid 63b

[v] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah Ch. 6. This is from a manuscript quoted by R. M. M. Kasher in his Torah Shleima to Lech Lecha 15:7 [88].