We read in Parashat Vayishlach of the pilgrimage which Yaakov made together with his family to Beit-El, fulfilling the vow he had made at that site twenty years earlier, that he would establish there a “house of God” (28:22) upon his return to his homeland. In preparation for this pilgrimage, Yaakov instructed his family and servants to eliminate “the foreign gods which are in your midst” (35:2), which most commentators understand as a reference to religious articles which Yaakov’s sons had seized from the city of Shekhem. As we read earlier (34:27-29), after Shimon and Levi’s assault on Shekhem, they seized the city’s property, and these spoils, apparently, included a number of religious articles. Yaakov felt it was necessary for the family to rid themselves of these items before going to serve God in Beit-El. The Torah relates that the family and servants gave to Yaakov “all the foreign gods which were in their possession, and the rings which were in their ears,” and Yaakov buried them in the ground (35:4).
As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes in his Torah commentary, it seems unclear why the Torah specifically mentions the earrings as having been eliminated together with the articles of worship. Rav Hirsch speculates that the earrings taken from Shekhem may have had images of pagan deities engraved on them, and he notes that Onkelos translates “nezamim” (“rings”) in this verse as “kedashaya,” which seems to denote some religious function. Indeed, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel writes that these rings had been worn by the people of Shekhem and had on them graven images, establishing a Midrashic source for Rav Hirsch’s speculation.
A different approach is taken by Malbim and by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala. They explain that these rings were not worn by people, but rather by the statues in Shekhem. These “nezamim” were decorations for the idols, and thus Yaakov wanted them to be eliminated along with the idols themselves.
A symbolic insight into this verse is suggested by Rav Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in his Ma’or Va-shemesh. He writes that just as Yaakov’s family removed the “rings that were in their ears,” so must we endeavor to remove the objects that obstruct our “ears,” that do not allow us to be impacted by the words of Torah and wisdom which we learn and hear. This is done, the Ma’or Va-shemesh, writes, by removing the “elohei ha-neikhar,” the “foreign gods,” our preoccupation with physical and material indulgence. When we overprioritize physical enjoyment and material luxury, then they in a sense become “elohei neikhar” – “foreign gods” to which we devote our lives. The effect of this preoccupation is that our “ears” become “blocked,” incapable of absorbing and processing the teachings of the Torah. If our minds focus inordinately on mundane matters, we will lack the headspace for more meaningful matters. The Ma’or Va-shemesh thus urges us to reduce our preoccupation with, and indulgence in, worldly delights, to eliminate the “god” of pleasure and luxury, which will result in the opening of our “ears” and a greater ability to be impacted, uplifted and inspired by the profound wisdom of the Torah.