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"And you shall not erect for yourselves a pillar, which Hashem, your G-d, hates" (Devarim 16:22). Rashi explains that Hashem commanded us to make an altar of stones and an altar of earth; not a pillar which was a religious ordinance amongst the Canaanites. Although it was pleasing to Him in the days of our ancestors who indeed sacrificed upon them, once the Gentiles made it an ordinance of an idolatrous character Hashem despised it.
This is a basic tenet in Judaism. Something which the Nations of the world use for idolatry is forbidden for Jews to use even in the service of Hashem.
On the holiday of Shavuos, there is a custom among some to display branches and leaves at home and in the synagogue. One reason is to symbolize that the Mountain of Sinai, upon which the Torah was given on that day, was surrounded by greenery, which the animals were forbidden to graze from, even though it was in the midst of the desert. This signified that Torah is the source of life.
Apparently, it was once the custom to display trees too, for the same reason. The Vilna Gaon decreed, however, that this custom should be abolished since the Gentiles began using trees as a part of their holiday decorations in the winter. How sad it is that today there are Jews who display those very trees, not on Shavuos, but actually during that non-Jewish holiday.
There is a cute story of a great rabbi, whom I was privileged to know for a short time before he passed away, who was the spiritual advisor in an ultra-Orthodox, Chassidic yeshiva in Monsey. The Rabbi was a very holy man and although he was of Lithuanian background, even the Chassidic students respected him for his piety. It seems, though, that, having arrived in the United States after World War II, he never really adjusted to the American way of life and didn't understand the populace, neither the religious nor the non-religious. It was as if he had never left his home in Europe.
One day in December, someone was driving the Rabbi to and from a place on the outskirts of Monsey. Noticing that there was a Pine tree in almost every window, the Rabbi commented that apparently many non-Jews live in this neighborhood. The driver responded that due to our many sins, it is possible that some of these homes belong to Jews. The Rabbi was startled. "How could that possibly be?" he wanted to know. "That is a form of idolatry!" The driver, who regretted what he had said, tried to calm down the old Sage. He explained that many American Jews show solidarity with their neighbors by lighting a Chanukah menorah and displaying a tree at the same time. Americans respect other religions too, he concluded.
The Rabbi was beside himself. Coming from a background where members of all religions despised members of competing groups, he could not fathom that a Jew would actually demonstrate solidarity by personally displaying non-Jewish symbolism. He decided that as soon as he arrives in yeshiva, he would deliver an unscheduled lecture about the severity of such an act.
The students were very moved by the passionate address in which the Rabbi cried bitterly as he described how much European Jews had suffered during the Holocaust at the hands of those who professed to belong to the "Religion of Love," while their leader in the Vatican was silent or perhaps even antagonistic. This was besides the centuries of aggressive persecutions and tortures by the Church itself, especially in the dark days of the Inquisition. He explained the severity of the many prohibitions in the Torah against idolatry and anything which fell within its proximity. He expressed his shock and rage at the phenomenon of American Jews who are so insensitive to Jewish principles that they themselves display Pine trees in their homes during the non-Jewish holidays. But the extremely religious students could not control their laughter when the venerable Rabbi ended by threatening that, "Therefore, any student who is found displaying a tree in his dormitory room while be immediately expelled from the yeshiva!"
I was a teenager when the marvelous speaker, Harav Shalom Shvadron zt"l began coming to the USA to deliver his lectures in the proper way to serve Hashem. Much of what he said was familiar to me, although he impressed me greatly with the way he said it. But sometimes his ideals were way above what we had been taught. He would often say that "A guest for a while sees for a mile." He meant that there were many problems which we, being within the problem, did not even recognize. An outsider, however, could have greater clarity of the situation since he was not a part of it.
One such topic which surprised me was the "problem" of "Sundays off." I had never realized, until Reb Shalom pointed it out to us, that Sunday is a non-Jewish holiday; it is the Christian Sabbath. As such, we Jews should not really take part in it; just as we do not do so in Israel, thank G-d. Once it has become an established part of American life, he argued, we should at least use it to our advantage and not spend it as the Gentiles do. Rather than utilize the time to take the family on trips and to do some repairs around the house, we should seek some spiritual benefit from it. For example, when asked why we don't learn enough Torah, we are quick to reply that we are busy trying to survive in the "rat race," and that every moment is spent trying to support ourselves and our loved ones. Disregarding for a moment the invalidity of that argument, one thing is clear; we have plenty of free time on Sundays. What excuse do we have for not learning Torah then?
Reb Shalom suggested that at least every Sunday morning, immediately after Shacharis (the morning prayers), every shul should be full of ba'alei batim (laymen) who learn Torah together until minchah (the afternoon prayers). They can learn in pairs or in groups or at public shiurim (lectures). The rabbis of all of the congregations should organize these Torah programs and should provide participants with breakfast so that they don't have to go home first; from where they might not return until the next morning.
Certainly in the month of Elul, which began this week, during which we prepare for the awesome High Holy Days which are rapidly approaching, it would be a great idea to implement Reb Shalom's suggestion. Then we will surely be granted a good year to come; a year of Peace and Prosperity, Health and Happiness, for us and all our brothers and sisters around the world, amen.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network