Beware the tendency to play God


Parashat Va’eira

Rabbi Jeffrey GoldwasserThere is nothing that the Hebrew Bible seems to despise more than worshipping anything that is not God. Of all the sins proscribed in our most sacred texts, the most obnoxious to God is the sin of idolatry. And there is no idolater who is more egregious in the view of the Bible than the one who worships himself.

That is a dire warning for an age in which we constantly “play God.” We manipulate DNA to create new life forms. We communicate with millions of people instantaneously with a few strokes of the keyboard. We carry access to the world’s largest libraries in our pockets. 

In our age, we tend to scoff at the stories of God’s miracles in the Bible, not because they seem unbelievable, but because they seem so puny compared to what we can do. Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come tumblin’ down? A single B-2 stealth bomber armed with precision-guided weapons could do the job in under a minute.

Yet, our great, god-like powers do not mean that we have outgrown the prohibition against worshipping the work of our hands. In fact, just the opposite is true. We need the warning against idolatry even more today because the great powers we have harnessed so easily lead us into worshipping ourselves. It is so easy for us to believe that the only thing we need is our own magnificence. 

There is a classical rabbinic midrash that teaches that God punished Pharaoh for claiming to be a god (Exodus Rabbah 8:2). In a case of “let the punishment fit the crime,” God instructed Moses with these words from this week’s Torah portion (Va’eira): “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:1). The punishment for a human being who pretends to be a god is to be humbled by God in the form of a mere mortal. Call it poetic justice.

So, the question we must be asking is this: What shepherd will come walking out of the wilderness into our halls of power acting as God’s agent to humble us? There are plenty of candidates. If we so insist on using our power to play God, how will that power be turned against us in another case of cosmic comeuppance?

Perhaps, it is time for us to be less focused on what we can do and more concerned about what we should do with our power. Instead of believing that we can solve the world’s problems, our nation’s problems, and our community’s challenges with the application of power, we should try humility, reverence and genuine relationships instead. 

We will not rid the world of terror through the deployment of more terrible weapons. We will not keep ourselves safe with walls, guns and metadata. We will not build communities through the Internet.

There is a man with a beard and a staff at the door, and he is asking us to let his people go. Perhaps it would be a good idea to put down our devices and talk with him.

Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Cranston. He is the author of the blog “Reb Jeff,” from which this d’var Torah is adapted.