Earlier this week we noted Moshe’s warning to Benei Yisrael after commanding them to dismantle the Canaanites’ sites of idolatrous worship: “Lo ta’asun kein l-Hashem Elokeikhem” – “Do not do so to the Lord your God” (12:4). The Gemara (Makkot 22a), as we saw, interprets this warning as a prohibition against destroying sacred property, such as the Beit Ha-mikdash, an altar, or sacred texts. This prohibition is listed by the Rambam as one of the 613 Biblical commands (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, lo ta’aseh 65; Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, chapter 6).
This explanation of the verse appears also in the Sifrei, which then cites Rabban Gamliel (in some texts, Rabbi Yishmael) as objecting. It is inconceivable, Rabban Gamliel argued, that the Torah found it necessary to warn Benei Yisrael not to destroy their sacred articles. Rabban Gamliel therefore offers a different interpretation of the verse, claiming that the Torah here warns us not to bring about the destruction of our Beit Ha-mikdash through our sinful conduct.
As mentioned, Halakha accepts the first interpretation of the verse, that the Torah here forbids destroying sacred property. We might wonder, then, how the other Sages responded to Rabban Gamliel’s objection. Why was it necessary for the Torah to introduce a special prohibition against dismantling the Temple or an altar, or destroying a Sefer Torah?
One possible answer, perhaps, is that the warning was necessitated by the preceding command to dismantle, destroy and leave no vestiges of the sites of the Canaanites’ pagan worship. Benei Yisrael were to launch a full-blown assault on idolatry, demolishing all structures and articles involved in pagan rituals. The warning of “lo ta’asun kein l-Hashem Elokeikhem” perhaps reflects the fear that the people’s revulsion for pagan worship, which they were required to express, would then be extended to their own mode of worship. Once they fulfill the command to eradicate and passionately reject the abominable religious practices of the Canaanites, which Moshe describes later in Parashat Re’ei (12:31), Benei Yisrael might become disillusioned with religious practices generally, and thus be moved to dismantle their own sanctuaries and discard their own altars and texts. Their disdain for paganism might lead to disdain for all religious worship, thus prompting Moshe to warn that after the people destroy the Canaanites’ Temples, they must not do the same to their own Temple and other structures and articles of sanctity.
When we observe and contemplate the atrocities committed in the name of religion, we can easily become cynical towards and dismissive of religion altogether, including our own. We might decide that if the desire to worship and serve a supreme being, or multiple supreme beings, leads people to wanton violence and corruption, then the entire enterprise of religion should be discarded. Moshe therefore warns Benei Yisrael, “Do not do so to the Lord your God,” to retain their faith in and commitment to our own religious doctrines, values and obligations even as they set out to oppose those of pagan faiths, and not to allow this opposition to translate into contempt for religion generally.