Life is about keeping our sense of direction despite all the many pressures. We are pulled this way and that, sometimes into negative situations. The teachings of the Torah give us guidance about how to be aware of what is happening. Sometimes we should indeed decide to go with the flow. Sometimes we have to step back — and say no.

The Torah gives us an interesting warning regarding this issue. It is phrased in terms of Jewish life thousands of years ago, yet it is explained by our Sages in terms which are relevant today.

The overt topic in the Torah is the asheira tree. There may not be any in Kew Gardens, but the Talmud tells us this was a beautiful tree which was so enchanting that people used to worship it. There was something attractive and exciting about an asheira . Worship of the asheira was very common in ancient Canaan, and Jewish people were often enticed into it. The Torah warns against it several times.

In the Torah there is an intriguing statement: "Do not plant an asheira or any tree near the Altar of G‑d" (Deuteronomy 16:21). The Altar of G‑d is, of course, in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, or, during the centuries before Solomon built the Temple, in the Divine Sanctuary which was set up at a number of different locations in turn.

Now, why should anyone think of planting an asheira tree in the Sanctuary or Temple? Surely, a person either worships G‑d or follows the asheira cult. Why should he want to plant an asheira tree near G‑d's altar in the Sanctuary?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this is speaking of a case when the person who is in charge of the Sanctuary and the Altar is an enthusiastic Jew who wants more and more people to come to the Sanctuary. He wants more and more people to appreciate how inspiring and fulfilling it is to serve G‑d. The problem is that not as many people as he would like are actually coming. So he has an idea. "Everyone is attracted by the asheira tree. Let me plant one near the Altar and people will come flocking to the Sanctuary of G‑d".

At this point the Torah gives a warning: do not imagine that this is right, or indeed effective. True, large crowds may initially come. Unfortunately people do flock to the asheira. But since this attraction is itself forbidden, the initial success will not last. The intention is good: to bring more people to the Sanctuary. But the asheira confuses the issue. Eventually asheira worship might replace the Sanctuary altogether...

Now, is this relevant today? Imagine: a person is trying to promote a positive activity such as a charity evening. He or she gets the idea of having an "asheira". What is an asheira in this context? Something attractive and crowd pulling — which happens to be inappropriate in terms of the teachings of the Torah. The Torah warns: don't do it. You will be giving the wrong message which will eventually work against any initial apparent success.1

Of course, creative and exciting ideas, genuine positive crowd pullers, are vital in Jewish life today. Further, one needs a measure of sensitivity to decide what is an asheira and what is just an innocent, permitted attraction. One may need to take advice (that's what Rabbis and Rebbetzins are for). One certainly needs thought. And there are times to resist the pressure. But we Jews are particularly good at that — and that is why we still exist!