Tradition is of the lifeblood of Judaism. We bind the generations to the foundational events and behaviors of our peopleby passing down from parent to child that which is most precious. The insights of the past are integrated into the inheritance of the future as each new generation becomes part of the chain of tradition. Yet that which is most crucial can also become that which is most dangerous – transmission can easily become superficial such that meaning is lost, and all that the next generation receives are outward forms, while their why and their wherefore – their very essence – is lost. In these cases tradition, wrongly conceived, becomes its own worst enemy, draining Judaism of its lifeblood.
Maimonides, in his magnum opus of Jewish law, the Mishne Torah, explains the genesis of idolatry in just such a fashion. Originally, all human beings knew of the One God, Creator of heaven and earth. Their keenest desire was to pay homage to Him through heartfelt worship. However, as time passed they began to reason that sacrifice should properly be offered not only to He Himself, but also to the great ministers and representatives that He formed in order to bestow good on humanity. Human beings began therefore to construct altars and to present libations to the sun and the moon and the divinely fashioned heavenly host. Eventually it was forgotten that the worship of the heavenly bodies was originally conceived as an expression of honor towards the Most High God; its true significance was lost and this worship slowly came to be performed for its own sake. The very worship that was born in order to exalt the One God, ended up reinforcing the mistaken belief that the heavenly bodies constitute powers in their own right, independently worthy of homage. And so was born idolatry. For Maimonides perforce, idolatry rears its ugly head when means are confused with ends.
It is from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Beshalach, that Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed derives the lesson that not everything that God commands is a independently valuable ideal; some commandments actually may only be properly conceived as means towards something else.
Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was shorter, for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt. So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness of the Sea of Reeds.
God’s goal is to bring the Israelites into the Land of Canaan, and the fastest way to do so is through the coastal lands controlled by the Philistines. But at the same time God knows all too well that the erstwhile slaves are not yet ready to shoulder the burden of conquering the Promised Land and He is afraid that if they are pushed into it too quickly – without the benefit of a training period in the desert which will steel them to accept personal responsibility and to take upon themselves the hardships of military life – the whole enterprise may backfire. God therefore decides to adopt circuitous means towards the accomplishment of the final goal.
And such is the nature of a not insignificant portion of the Torah’s legislation, claims Maimonides. There are means and there are ends. All is important and all is obligatory, but a profound disservice will be done to the Torah and to God Himself if we don’t know to distinguish that which is a primary value and that which is a vehicle towards its achievement. We will never be able to accomplish God’s goals if we do not identify what they are, and if the Torah contains both means and ends, we must devote ourselves to understanding which are which and to organizing our priorities accordingly.
This advice was not always heeded in days of yore. As an example, Maimonides points to the common mistake during the era of the First Temple of meticulously adhering to the laws of the sacrificial service while wantonly disregarding the Torah’s demands of justice and integrity in human relations. He opines that a proper understanding of the instrumental nature of the Temple service would have prevented such a blatant perversion of priorities.
Today as then, we must struggle with proper prioritization and learn to place emphasis where it belongs. Tradition must convey not only proper deed but meaning and purpose as well. Otherwise, hints Maimonides, our practice of Judaism, however sincere, is liable to become – God forbid – little short of idolatrous.