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Discarding Alien Gods

(1) God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Beth-El. Live there and build
an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your
brother Esau." (2) So Jacob said to his household and all who were
with him, "Discard the alien gods that are in your midst; purify
yourselves and change your clothes. (3) Then let us arise and us go
up to Beth-El where I will make an altar to God who answered me in my
time of distress. . ." (Genesis 35:1-3)

This short passage captures the goal of the Jewish people's spiritual
journey: Teshuvah -- Returning. In it, we see that from early in our
people's history the intimate connection between returning to our
ancient homeland, turning back to the worship of God and reviving our
spiritual health. Wherever we go, God's summoning voice invites us to
return to both our spiritual home and our physical homeland; to the
times and places where we encountered the divine and where we felt our
souls expand.

Here and other places in the theological reflections on our past in
the "historical" books of our Scripture, this journey appears as a
return to the physical Land of Israel. The language and imagery found
in these passages, however, call for a spiritual return as well.
Jacob's instructions to his household, "Discard the alien gods that
are in your midst; purify yourselves and change your clothes," point
to a change of heart as well as action, a return to a spiritual home
as much as a return to a physical home.

In four other places Scripture employs the words "discard the alien
gods" to describe an inner transformation of our Israelite ancestors
and their leaders. In Judges 10:16 and in 1 Samuel 7:3 enemy
aggression impels our ancestors to cast off foreign gods. In 2nd
Chronicles 33:15, the repentant Judean king Manasseh removes the
images of foreign deities from the Jerusalem Temple after God rescues
him from Assyrian imprisonment. Most significantly, in Joshua 24:23,
at the covenant renewal ceremony in Shechem that marked the completion
of Israel's conquest of the Holy Land and the end of the long journey
from Egyptian slavery to national independence, Joshua instructs our
people to put away the foreign gods and turn their hearts to their
God.

Casting off the symbols of oppression -- both physical and spiritual
-- is not enough. We also need to restore our bodies and souls.
Jacob's directive that his people cleanse themselves and don fresh
garments addresses the inner and outer dimensions of spiritual growth.
His words recall the Torah's instructions to the cohanim, the priests,
as they prepared for sacrificial worship in the sanctuary. Jacob was
returning to Beth El, literally "God's House", where he first
encountered God to fulfill his vow to make it a place of worship for
himself and his household (Genesis 28:22). For religious rituals to
touch our hearts, we need to purify ourselves by washing away the dust
of our wanderings from our bodies and our souls.

Yet on a deeper level, Jacob's command to his household also reflects
God's order that Moses should prepare the household of Israel prior to
the revelation on Sinai by sanctifying them and directing them to wash
their clothing. Jacob's return to Beth El renewed the covenantal
relationship between him, his people and God. Spiritual growth,
personal renewal and national restoration encompass a recommitment to
the beliefs and values that inspired us from the beginning and have
always proven to be a source of strength and support in times of
trial.

Jacob's return to Beth El marked the end of one stage in his life's
pilgrimage and the beginning of another. Jacob has returned to his
home and to the place where he first met God. He has made Teshuvah.
He has come back physically and spiritually to Beth El, to God's
House, the place where it all began.

For Jacob, as it is for us, transition points in life are appropriate
times to recollect, regroup and restore. Life continues, but we are
refreshed. The rest of the Torah portion ties up the loose ends. The
text summarizes the history of Esau's descendants and tells us of
Isaac's death. The next portion begins the story of Joseph and the
start of a new adventure for Jacob and his family. We are ready to
being again.

Copyright 2008 Lewis John Eron
All rights reserved.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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