Lessons of Idolatry

Re'eh By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Aug 22, 2014 / 5774 | Israel

Parashat Re’eh looks forward to the entry of the Israelites into the Land. While there is excitement and anticipation that the Israelites will become a settled nation, the Torah expresses deep concern with regard to the native peoples and idolatrous practices. Deuteronomy emphatically declares,

You will utterly destroy all the places where the nations you will dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains and the hills, and under every leafy tree. Tear down their altars, destroy their monuments and burn their devotional sites with fire. Cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their names. You will not do likewise to the Lord your God. (12:2–4)

This chilling legislation is historically bound, and must be understood within the biblical context. As a young nation still insecure in its path, Israel is fragile. God fears that the practices of the native peoples will lure the Israelites into idolatry. And so, by wiping out the devotional sites of the Canaanites, they express their loyalty and devotion to the Israelite God. Yet, is there more that can be gleaned from this understandable but disconcerting command?

The classic medieval commentator Rashi shares two interesting insights sparked by Deuteronomy 12:4, “You will not do likewise to the Lord your God.” He writes, “It is a prohibition addressed to one who would blot out the name of God from any sacred writings or would pull out a stone from the altar . . . Another possible meaning is that you should not behave like the native peoples so that your sins would cause the sanctuary of your ancestors to be laid waste” (Commentary on Deuteronomy 12:4).

Far from rooting the verse in its literal context, Rashi chooses a midrashic route so as to make this text more relevant to his contemporary audience. He teases out two central messages for us. First, the legislation of Deuteronomy 12:2 to 3 commands the Israelites to blot out of the names of the gods that were being worshipped by the Canaanites. Clearly, one should “not do likewise to the Lord.” God’s Name in the Hebrew language is sacred. And so one must respect the Divine Name so as to draw a clear distinction between the way we treat our God and the way we are commanded to treat idolaters and their gods. Second, Rashi employs an ethical and moral spin in understanding our verses. The Israelites must act ethically. Violation of the commandments leads not only to one’s own depravity, but also carries with it the potential to destroy God’s sanctuary. Rashi’s brilliant and timeless insights allow us to embrace a most troubling passage of Torah and find the relevance that resonates with our modern souls and ethical Jewish living.

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