Pagans Among Us
Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )
"No one is more dependent upon others than one who seeks glory." (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter)
Ask the average person, on a scale of 1-10, how bad is being a pagan (a believer in more than one god)?
I am sure few would say it's the crime of the century. Yet, when we read the Torah cover to cover, few crimes come across as so repugnant or heinous in the eyes of God.
This sentiment is surely the source for why Jews, no matter how secular, will stubbornly ascribe to God's unity, even if they don't believe in Him. You've no doubt heard the old joke about the little Jewish boy who comes home from school proclaiming his new knowledge about three gods. His father, upon hearing the news, hollers, "There are not three gods. There is only one God, and we don't believe in Him!"
This sort of national schizophrenia leads to one of my favorite questions: which is worse, to be an ethical pagan or an unethical monotheist?
On the one hand many think a pagan to be a simpleton or uncultured. I can't imagine a pagan running for national office. On the other hand, a commitment to be ethical is no small thing either. So which is more important?
In other words, is it better to be a nice guy but believe in 3, 6 or 245 gods, or to be dishonest and ruthless, but hold to the belief of one God?
I am going to assume you believe in one God. If I am wrong, that's OK, just go along with me for a minute. Now, let's suppose you are presented with the possibility of there being a second god, maybe even a third. Would a person who accepted this second or third god as being real immediately become a different person? In other words, what difference does it make if I add another god if the first God makes me good?
Well, let's ask that question in a slightly different way. Why have the first God at all? Does the belief in one God change who I am?
Let me give you an example: Let's suppose you need only $1 to save your business from going bankrupt. You have spent 35 years building up this business and it gives 250 people a livelihood. You see Donald Trump's wallet on the table (and no one is looking) with a single dollar sticking out. You reason, I will take (really steal) the dollar, save my business and pay him back, not that Trump will ever notice.
An ethical person may reason that this makes sense. After all, in the end, it does a lot of good and no one suffers. Unfortunately, there is no little asterisk next to "Do Not Steal" in the 10 commandments, that lets you do such a thing.
In other words, there is only one God, so such behavior does not go unnoticed and therefore, in the long run, we cannot benefit.
One God also means I don't have to worry about anyone else. God runs the world, He pays the bills, and no one else can mess with me. That belief is key if I am going to be ethical. If I know there is one God who is always looking, stealing and lying are pointless. You can't out-smart God.
You might reason, believing in one God is really constraining. If not for God I could save my business.
And there you have your answer. I know this is a little unclear, so I am going to tell you a story that really happened to me.
One day I got a phone call in my office. It was from a Russian Jewish immigrant, a single mother who needed my help. I had never spoken to her before and didn't know who she was, but her story was basically this: she was about to be evicted from her apartment because she was desperately behind in her rent.
This mother worked long hours in a minimum-wage job, and when her car broke down, she had to use the rent money to fix the car. When I spoke to the landlord (who was not Jewish), I was surprised when he told me she was a good tenant of three years and, even though she was paying back the rent she owed, it wasn't according to the schedule outlined in the rental agreement. I tried reasoning with him, "You will lose at least a month's rent if you evict her, and you will have to fix up the apartment."
My arguments were fruitless. He told me he has hundreds of tenants and he doesn't make exceptions.
I pleaded with him, "She's a single mother and will be living on the street with a small child." He was unfazed.
In desperation, I went for the soul. Unfortunately he didn't have one. I asked, "Do you have children?"
He knew exactly what I meant, there is a God and He is watching how you treat this woman.
He said to me, "Rabbi, business is business, the church is the church."
I really wanted to say to him, "Sir, you are a pagan. You have one god in your church that makes you feel good, and one in your business that allows you to abuse people."
I didn't say that to him because I knew he wouldn't take his anger out on me, he would take it out on the mother. Pagans do that.
In the end, I am happy to tell you, the women got her money and I am sure the landlord regrets his decision. You might ask, how can I be so sure that the landlord regrets his decision? Because there is only one God.
IT'S AS SIMPLE AS ONE, TWO, EVEN THREE
One God gives you freedom, two gods make you a barbarian.
With one God you are free to be and do what you really know is right.
Then why add a second god? Obviously, because I cannot understand or explain or get through life with just one God. I need another opinion, someone who will allow me to take that dollar (Donald Trump's dollar).
And there you have it. Once you divide God, you have really created a duality of life. At different times, places, and situations, the rules change and therefore I can change.
Knowing there is only one God, that it's the same God I pray to for mercy who is also looking when I turn away the beggar. I can't ask God to be consistent, when I am not. I can't ask God to ease suffering when I turn my face.
And so we answer our question. Anyone who is unethical cannot be a monotheist. Anyone who is a pagan cannot be ethical.
Monotheism is not just a reduction in numbers or a simpler way of saying the same thing (i.e., condensing 10 gods into one). There is a real meaningful and tangible difference in the people and cultures that ascribe to one or multiple gods. Knowing there is only one makes you consistent.
It is therefore of no coincidence that, in this week's Torah portion, God's first encounter with Abraham in the Torah, God tells Abraham to do something "for himself."
"And God said to Abraham, go for yourself..."
This command formed the relationship not only between Abraham and God, but for all of Abraham's descendants.
God is telling you, imagine a world where you aren't afraid or need people, where everyone realizes that no one gets ahead by making innocent people suffer. Where good only elicits more good, and evil is repaid in kind.
Even the suicide bomber knows what he is doing is wrong. If you ask him, "Do you really want to kill people and ruin others' lives?"
He will tell you, just like the guy who takes Trump's dollar or the single mother's landlord, "Of course I don't want to do it, but it's the only way to be successful."
These are the words of pagans. They think that to be successful they have to follow rules that are contrary to the rules of our core values.
If there weren't one God, they would be correct.
How fortunate for us, and for the world, there is only one God ... and they will not be successful.
BRAINSTORMING QUESTIONS TO PONDER
Question 1: On a scale of 1-10, how convinced are you, that terrorism will not succeed?
Question 2: Do you feel it's unfair when you see people get ahead through improper means, or do you feel sorry for them, knowing what will eventually befall them?