Prohibiting Idolatry; Creating Freedom
A. INTRODUCTION – GIVING THE TORAH
Our parasha begins with the seemingly insignificant visit of Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, to the camp of Bnei Yisrael and thereafter quickly gains momentum with the arrival of Bnei Yisrael at the foot of Har Sinai in the beginning of the third month, Sivan. With the sense of the approaching historical event palpable in the air, the people receive their charge to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” They begin their final preparations to ready themselves to hear Hashem’s words directly, without intermediaries. At the sound of the shofar, those words begin:
2 I am Hashem your God, who brought you out of the
4 You shall not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I, Hashem your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate Me.
The Ten Commandment begin with the declaration, “I am Hashem your God,” which is followed immediately with the prohibition against idolatry. Living in a time that colors our understanding of idol worship as a primitive form of service, embodied by the offering of sacrifices and prostration to stone carvings, we tend to dismiss the relevance of the second commandment in today’s day and age. This week, we will explore the parameters of this prohibition, as discussed by the medieval and modern commentators, to see what lessons we moderns can derive from it.
B. THE NATURE OF THE PROHIBITION
What precisely is the prohibition in the second commandment (or “dibra”)? According to Maimonides, the prohibition encompasses even entertaining idolatrous thoughts (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, Ch. 1). The Sefer Ha-Chinukh also maintains that the issue addressed in this commandment is one involving thought: “‘You shall have no other gods’ forbids us to believe in any other god beside Hashem.” According to these opinions, the first two commandments mirror one another; the commandment to believe in Hashem is parallel to the commandment prohibiting belief in idolatry.
In contrast, Rashi quotes the Mekhilta, which states that the prohibition involves holding idols in your possession, even those made by others: “The Torah states, ‘Do not make for yourself any carved idol or likeness’ (v. 4). This forbids the fashioning of new ones. How do we know that one may not hold an existing one in his possession? This is deduced from, ‘You shall have no other gods besides Me’ (v. 3).”
Many of the medieval commentators and halakhic decisors share the Mekhilta’s approach, including the Behag and the Sefer Mitzvot Katan. The famed commentator on the Mishna, Rabbi Ovadiya Barternura, suggests that the second dibra follows a pattern of ascending severity. First, we read that “You shall have no other gods (v. 3), forbidding us to keep existing idols in our possession, which involves no action on our part. Then we read, “Do not make for yourselves any carve idol” (v. 4), which involves a physical act, but which still does not incur the death penalty. Next, we come to “Do not bow down to them” (v. 5), which incurs the death penalty even though bowing down does not necessarily signify full-fledged idol worship. Finally, it states, “Do not worship them” (ibid.), the level of full-fledged idol worship.
The Ramban, however, found this understanding difficult. After acknowledging that Rashi’s interpretation is that of the Mekhilta, he uses the Bartenura’s structure as the basis for rejecting that approach:
But why would [the Torah] place maintaining idols in one’s possession, which is a mere negative commandment, before prostration and worship, which both involve excision and execution by the court? In my opinion, the Halakha is not in accordance with this baraita, for it was taught in accordance with the opinion of an individual sage [but opposes the majority view] …
The more sound explanation, according to the plain and simple understanding of the phrase, is that it is related to the expression, “Then Hashem will be a God to me”… saying that we may not have besides Hashem other gods… is a prohibition stipulating that one should not believe in the divinity of any one of the [other] beings or accept it upon himself as a deity, and he should not say to it, “You are my god”… (Commentary to 20:3)
C. THE AKEIDAT YITZCHAK AND FREEDOM
Perhaps the most fascinating approach towards the prohibition against idolatry is that of Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, a contemporary of Don Yitzchak Abrabanel. In his commentary, the Akeidat Yitchzak, he expands the boundaries of the prohibition regarding “Do not have any other gods” from the technical issues of construction and worship of idols to the recognition of any other power or force in the world as Divine. Not content to simply detail the prohibition’s negative dimensions, the Akeidat Yitzchak describes both the active and present effects of idolatry, but also its positive ramifications:
Idolatry, as it exists today, remains quite strong. There are many people who invest all of their thoughts and efforts into achieving wealth and success. These are their mighty gods, and upon them they do rely. As for Hashem’s glory, they deny that He exists and they abandon his Torah to a lonely corner. This is the very essence of idolatry: “If I have made gold my hope, or have called fine gold my shelter; if I rejoiced because my wealth was great and because my hand has gotten much… this too is a criminal offense, betraying Hashem above” (Iyov 31:24-28).
Accordingly, the prohibition against idolatry does not correspond to a specific form of worship, but to a person’s acknowledgement of any physical entity as having mastery over the world and his reliance on it in place of Hashem. Sorrowfully describing the state of Jewry in his day, the Akeidat Yitzchak adds, “We hopelessly yearn for wealth, and can never be satisfied. We violate, therefore, ‘Do not make a statue of anything associated with Me. Do not make silver or gold gods for yourselves’” (Shemot 20:20).
By removing the focus from the specific form that idolatry assumes and placing it upon the act of ascribing any powers upon anything beyond Hashem, the Akeidat Yitzchak gives the prohibition a much broader meaning, relevant to every generation. However, the Akeidat Yitzchak added one more aspect to the prohibition – its positive ramifications:
Regarding the intention of the second commandment, I say that even though this commandment is a warning and prohibition against ascribing Divinity to any other beings, it also contains within it a tremendously positive message and total freedom – for once Hashem is our sole God, close to us, and His power far outweighs all others, what need do we have of serving others?… The Torah states that, “The tablets were the work of Hashem, and the writing was Hashem’s writing, engraved [CHA-RUT] upon the tablets” (Shemot 32:16). On this, Chazal comment, “Read not engraved [CHA-RUT], but rather read freedom [CHEIRUT]: freedom from death, from monarchs, from suffering.”
When a person behaves with true faith, he does not acknowledge any other mastery over the world aside from Hashem. The prohibition against idolatry serves to liberate him, not bind him.
We conclude this idea with a paraphrase of an anecdote from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s On Repentance:
A psychiatrist once approached me and tried to advance his belief that Judaism was a crippling force in the world. Having studied all the major pathologies in the world, he argue that they all stemmed from excessive fear. And here was the Torah, commanding us to fear the Lord… I rejected his claim dismissively, for it was clear that he did not understand with true fear of God meant. For when a person truly fears Hashem, he has no other worries or concerns that bind him. It is truly the most liberating feeling known to man…