When I spent a year studying in Jerusalem during rabbinical school, the tractate of Talmud we covered was Avodah Zarah, which deals with how Jews are to interact with idol worship. One of the passages we learned addressed how to dispose of anything that was used in, or associated with, pagan worship. Jews are not allowed to own or benefit from anything with an image of a god on it.
The problem of course, is how do you get rid of a statue of Zeus, let’s say? You can’t sell it or give it to an idolater because then you are helping in the worship of other gods. Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:3 states that one option for disposal is to grind the idol into dust and cast it into the wind, but the sages respond by saying that even that action can provide benefit because the dust can become manure, which is used for fertilizer.
The Mishnah’s preferred method of disposal is to throw the offending object into the Dead Sea, an inaccessible place where nothing grows. No one is going to wade into the Dead Sea and retrieve the idol, and I loved learning this Mishnah because it evoked such a strong image in my mind. I thought of a modern submarine, immune to salt and chemicals, exploring the sea floor finding coins, statues and other utensils with the image of forgotten gods banished by ancient Jews.
In my mind, I can see the people making the trek to the shore of the Dead Sea with various objects and throwing them into the water. How did they acquire the utensils? Was there someone who you could hire at the shore who would take you out a bit into the water to make sure the idol would sink to a deep part of the sea?
The Dead Sea as the place to get rid of the forbidden, the transgressive, the abhorrent is intriguing, especially in our own time, when physical objects are so impermanent, but digital records last forever. Today we know that our trash is never really gone, it just moves to a land fill or perhaps to a swirling mass in the middle of the ocean. In a globalized world, the detritus of life is inescapable.
So the Dead Sea is like a black hole of avodah zarah, idol worship, but it is also a place of stunning beauty, one of immense contrast: the sparkling, but deadly, blue water set against the brown of the desert. In February the distinction is heightened as wildflowers bloom, turning the sandy hills into bursts of color. This year, after a long period of rain, the wildflowers are particularly stunning.
We all need a place like the Dead Sea, to send the things we want to rid from our lives, whether it’s useless stuff or digital memories best forgotten. But we also need places like the Dead Sea, full of contradiction; places of sparseness and restoration, beauty and awe.