For the week of March 20, 2021 / 7 Nisan 5781
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23
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All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together. (Isaiah 44:9-11)
At the very core of what it means to be human is our call to create. We don’t create in the exact same way as God did, of course. He created from nothing. Yet, the directives to subdue the earth (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:28) and cultivate the garden (Bereshit/Genesis 2:15) imply working with the creation, forming it, and developing it as needed. It isn’t long in early biblical history before we see innovation through the designing of musical instruments and metal tools (see Bereshit/Genesis 4:21-22). When God decided to preserve his creation through Noah, it was through an extraordinary naval project. God’s undermining the building of the city and tower of Babel was not due to the people’s technical ingenuity and ability, but rather due to their being driven by their self-directed agenda.
While we don’t create out of nothing, we are all involved in the creative process. The God-given responsibility to work almost always includes the forming and transforming of the world we live in or the supporting of those who do. Even those who wouldn’t see their lives as focused on creativity, if they stopped to notice, would discover that in some way they too interact with the arranging and rearranging of their environment. It may be as simple as how they dress and present themselves. Exceptions would be the very infirm (for whom we should care) and the extreme lazy and neglectful (whom we should admonish).
This is all to say that the desire to make things is central to human life as determined by God from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean everything we make is good and worthwhile. In this week’s Haftarah portion (excerpt from the Prophets), we encounter a strong critique of the making of idols. What’s most instructive is that it’s not so much the worthlessness of the idols themselves that is being addressed, but those who make them.
I think we can safely assume that the worthlessness of the idol makers is due to the worthlessness of the idols. But what strikes me is that the value of what is made is being transferred to the one who makes it. For many years, I have been told that it isn’t good for us to overly identify with our work. Statements such as “you are not what you do” have sought to draw our focus toward “being” instead of “doing.” Some of this corrective is helpful, especially in terms of our perception of accomplishments. It is easy to define ourselves by our and society’s views of success. Accolades, promotions, and money serve to rate our work and how we think of ourselves. Simply being faithful to whatever our calling is, assuming it is a noble one, is rarely celebrated or even noticed. One can easily devalue oneself especially in today’s celebrity-oriented social media saturated world.
It’s right and helpful to turn our focus from these misguided values to the meaningfulness of living a good life that does good as best we can, using our gifts and talents appropriately. It matters what we do with our lives. Who we are manifests in what we do. There’s no such thing as “just a job.” We need to take care to make sure that we are being true to the plans and purposes of God both in general and specifically in our case. This doesn’t mean necessarily that we will spend every working moment at what we find the most meaningful and/or always accomplishing great things. It also doesn’t mean we won’t find our work difficult and frustrating sometimes.
The roots of frustration over our work may stem from not understanding the worth of our work. This is again where the misguided values of our culture may be distorting the truth about your life. At the same time, it’s easy to fall into a trap of worthlessness as we find false security in “the job” or “the money,” for example.
It matters what you do with the gifts and talents God has given you. May you find the creative outlets he has made you for.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version