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The Idol Within

So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes.” — Genesis 35:2

The Torah portion for this week, Vayishlach, which means “and he sent,” is from Genesis 32:4—36:43, and the Haftorah is from Obadiah 1:1–21.

There is a joke about a young man who went to study in a renowned Jewish school that emphasized character refinement. After a few days, the new student began to imitate what he saw many of the veteran students doing day after day. He sat in his chair, closed his eyes tight, and began to repeat, “I am nothing! I am nothing! I am nothing!” Upon hearing the young man chanting that phrase, an elder classman scolded him by saying, “Who do you think you are? You have to be here at least a year until you can reach the level of being nothing!”

All joking aside, humility and the eradication of arrogance have always been paramount values in Judaism.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob instructed his family to “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you . . . change your clothes.” The Jewish sages are puzzled by this statement. Could it be that Jacob’s family was involved in idol worship? How could Jacob think that his own wives and children would worship false gods?

The sages explain that the idolatry Jacob was referring to in this verse is the worship of one’s self. Jacob was saying to his family, “Get rid of the foreign gods within you.” In other words, purge yourselves of arrogance, pride, and self-centeredness.

In Jewish thought, arrogance is tantamount to idol worship. There cannot be two kings in the world. Either I am the king or God is my King — only one of us can call the shots. The arrogant person makes himself the center of the universe. By default, he tries to usurp God’s position.

The sages teach that an arrogant person steals God’s clothing, in a manner of speaking. As we read in the psalms, “The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty” (Psalm 93:1). It is as though an arrogant person attempts to clothe himself in God’s majestic garments in order to pass himself off as the king. When Jacob told his family to change their clothing, he was telling them to throw off pride and don humility.

God created us as beautiful, capable, and wondrous beings. It’s easy to forget our place sometimes and get caught up in pride instead of living with humility. However, taking ourselves too seriously is a form of idol worship. The only one at the center of our lives should be the one and only God.

This week, let’s purge ourselves of arrogance and walk humbly with God. In every decision we make, let’s consider God’s opinion above our own. In everything we accomplish, let us thank God for His help in making us successful. As we read in Proverbs, “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (3:6, KJV).

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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