OpinionTorah Portion

True or new?

Is “old” necessarily old-fashioned?

Torah scroll. Credit: Ungvar/Shutterstock.
Torah scroll. Credit: Ungvar/Shutterstock.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

Did you know that it was the Ten Commandments and not the Ten Suggestions?

In this week’s Torah reading, “Va’etchanan,” Moses continues his recap of the last 40 years of Jewish history, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt. When he gets to the Revelation at Sinai, he repeats the Ten Commandments.

The first one is the positive commandment to believe in God, who, after all, redeemed us from our terrible bondage. The second commandment is the negative prohibition on accepting any “other gods.” 

The commentaries ask: What do you mean “other gods”? There are no other gods. There is only one God.

There are a variety of explanations.

One is that it means not “other gods,” but rather “the gods of others.” That is, the gods that the pagan nations would make for themselves, such as idols of all sizes and shapes or the deification of the sun and moon, etc.

But there’s an interpretation from the Midrash that resonates with me. It refers to other gods that societies regularly create. The ancient pagans would fashion new gods over and over again. These are the “other gods” the commandment refers to.

This is very relevant today.

Every day, we see new gods rising on the world stage. Whether it’s new stage idols, self-appointed celebrities, fads, fashions or whiz kids, new sensations pop up constantly to claim their 15 minutes of fame.

And you thought the Bible was old-fashioned?

Today, in every area of life, we are constantly bombarded with new gods and goddesses: New models, new gadgets, new cars, phones, computers, headsets—you name it. And we’ve all got to have the latest and greatest.

“Oh, yours is the old shape!” my friend said of my “new” car. Admittedly, it was one year old when I bought it.

And it doesn’t matter whether this car is equal to the new one mechanically. If it’s the old shape, it is now officially passé and heaven forbid you should be caught with the now redundant and defunct old car or phone, etc.

But what’s wrong with the old?

I can think of too many successful businessmen who decided to trade in their old wives for a newer model. It didn’t help their family life.

Not everything old is necessarily old-fashioned. Is something wrong with your old mother? Would you trade her in for a new model too? Trust me, they don’t make mothers like they used to.

So, the second commandment isn’t only teaching us about the ancient Canaanites and their pagan idolatry. It’s teaching us to banish the notion that we need new gods or new fashions or new models all the time.

Respect the old. Don’t reject something just because it’s old. Some years back, Coca-Cola brought out New Coke. It fizzled. It never caught on. People insisted on Classic Coke.

I have always disliked the labels and terminologies we use in describing religious movements and lifestyles. Personally, I would much prefer “Classic Judaism” to “Orthodox Judaism.”

Torah is more concerned with true than with new.

Of course, I enjoy the latest inventions and innovations. We should. Why drive a horse and cart if there’s a car available? We all need and benefit tremendously from new technologies in health, medicine, business and defense. I myself have been dragged onto Facebook and recently got my own page.

Many years ago, I and my family first moved to South Africa so I could serve as the founding director of the very first Chabad House in Johannesburg. It was located in the suburb of Yeoville where the Jewish population was concentrated. An old boarding house had been purchased and I oversaw the renovations to transform it into a beautiful Jewish community center.

The gracious building had old anthracite heaters for the winter with chimney flues that carried the smoke up and out of the building. The previous owners had them painted in different colors. Our architect instructed the builders to peel off the paint. Layer after layer came off and, in the end, we witnessed a startling revelation: The flues were made of solid copper.

I’m not lying when I tell you that our architect cried when he saw how they had been covered with cheap, garish paint. He had the builders clean and polish them, and they became the center’s most stunning feature.

Today, we see the curious phenomenon of old men with ponytails and old women in miniskirts trying desperately—dare I say, pathetically—to look young. Someone pointed out to me that we don’t realize that in 40 years’ time, we will have millions of old ladies walking around with the most ridiculous-looking tattoos on their bodies! Sure, we all want to grow old gracefully and, please God, we will, but let’s not delude ourselves.

Be wary of the “other gods,” the new gods and goddesses people create to keep up with the times. Truth is truth and values are values forever. Let’s stick to our old truths that will never go out of fashion.

Let us be true to ourselves, our families, our traditions, and to God and His eternal value system, even if they are “old.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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