Here is a definition of avodah zara (idolatry): any behavior that needs its own 12-step program.
The pathological dimensions of workaholism are signaled in the word itself: taken from the lexicon of addiction, the word is meant to convey the sense that a normative behavior — in this case, the commitment to one’s job — has tilted into the realm of compulsion. Whatever one’s impetus to work hard; whatever one’s pleasure in feeling that one makes a difference to the project or the world; whatever one’s satisfaction in meeting expectations, completing tasks, and achieving goals — all of this is overtaken by the obsessive urge to be working.
The Torah describes the Israelites’ time in Egypt and their transformation from workers to slaves as a slippery process. Because Pharaoh’s manipulation was deliberate, the slave may not have known exactly when work, avodah, became
Today, the transition from work to workaholism may also be blurred. Since the “master” is internal, the manipulation is unconscious. Workaholism generally includes specific consequences to the behavior: deterioration of relationships with family and friends, decreased attention to “outside interests,” and diminished self-care. Self-imposed (though often experienced as involuntary) enslavement to one’s work seems to offer an illusion of some “freedom” from the challenges presented in those other realms.
The dangers of avdut — literal or metaphoric enslavement — can be measured in the diminishment of the worker’s body, mind, and soul. The cycle is vicious; the physical toll, the reduced mental space, and the existential angst that fills the limited downtime all serve to reinforce the distorted worldview of the enslaved. When one is confined in a narrow place, mitzrayim (the biblical name for Egypt that also means “narrow straits” or “distress”), the tunnel vision that comes from such a severe imbalance of life’s experiences supports the feelings of inevitability that accompany all “choices” that are made. The slippery slope where avodah becomes avodah zara is but a few steps away.
The Hebrew word “zara” literally means “foreign” or “strange,” but in the rabbinic idiom, “avodah zara” — usually translated as “idol worship” — is shorthand for the beliefs and practices of “the other.” (Any “other,” but in the rabbinic era, this primarily referred to pantheists, polytheists, and early Christians). Biblical caricatures of idolatry aside, we need look no further than initial attempts to serve the God of Israel to uncover the fault line between avodah and zara in the realm of Israelite worship.
The object lesson of the golden calf makes clear that anything — even worshiping the God of Israel — can become idolatrous. After Moses (their one tangible link to God) disappears atop the mountain, the Israelites — in their desire to find God’s presence in their midst — concretize their yearnings in the form of the golden calf.
How does the construction of the calf differ from the Israelites’ next great building project — the mishkan (the portable sanctuary used during the years of wandering)? Both are attempts to concretize the same abstract concept — to locate God’s presence in their midst. Both make use of avodat yad, literally, the work of the hand: artisanship for the purpose of worship. Both provide opportunities for creative expression to function as a spiritual practice. Both seem like communal labors of love. And yet, only the golden calf was considered avodah zara, idolatrous.
Certainly, the creation of the mishkan at God’s command, as opposed to the human initiative behind the golden calf predisposed God toward the mishkan. But divine initiation is not enough to warrant the distinction. More significantly, the mishkan served as a container for the people’s projections without conflating the symbol with its referent, God. And the solid mass of metal that comprised the golden calfcould only reflect what those who surrounded it projected onto it, inverting and perverting both the understanding of God and the concept of avodah by desiring God to be of service to them. We can easily dismiss as primitive the excessive literalism of locating God in an object (as in the calf) or even in a particular space (as in the mishkan). From our perspective, it all seems so obvious — the God of Israel cannot be reduced to any one thing or contained in any one place
Neither can our lives. The workaholic — or anyone who struggles at times with a serious lack of balance in life — may perceive the world as a narrow place affording few choices, offering but a single way to survive amidst an existential emptiness. Just as the physical slavery of the ancient Israelites in Egypt and the individual’s experience of addiction are both described as avdut, both the avodah zara of idol worshippers and the avodah zara of obsession are also analogous. An obsessive focus on people, objects, ideas, ideals, and even deeply held values may lead us into the proverbial tunnel of tunnel vision, where the tunnel becomes a mishkan for good intentions that ultimately serve no one.email print