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Ban on Idolatry

V'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 )

by Yehuda Appel

At the end of World War Two, Winston Churchill was asked if he was concerned about how historians would view his role in the war. He replied that he wasn't the least bit concerned, saying that, "history shall be kind to me, for I shall write it." Ultimately, Churchill's words came true; his history of World War Two became one of the most popular books on the subject.

The attempt to shape and influence events is part and parcel of the human saga. All of us want to be players in the game of life. But while we can in fact influence events, we cannot control their final outcome. Ultimately, all is in the hands of the Almighty.

A central focus of this week's Torah portion, V'etchanan, is the ban on idolatry. The Israelites are absolutely forbidden from worshiping or even making graven images. They should not intermarry with the surrounding nations lest they be drawn after their idolatrous ways. Jews are forbidden not only from making likenesses of other gods, but Jews may not even make an image which symbolically represents God Himself. This stricture is so great that a Jew should rather die than participate in pagan worship.

Why is idolatry seen as such a severe transgression? Some commentators see the Torah's stricture against making a graven image as a preventive law, to avoid the possibility that people will mistakenly come to worship this image as God Himself. The Ibn Ezra notes that our relationship with the Almighty is direct - without any intermediaries. The use of an image - even as a mere symbol to represent the Divine - would constitute an intermediary and is thus forbidden.

The commentators give another reason for the Biblical disdain of idolatry: It is perversion of the metaphysical order. Judaism teaches that we must subordinate our will to the Almighty's will. The nature of pagan worship is just the opposite. It is an attempt to influence and ultimately control spiritual forces. Jewish tradition says our purpose in this world is to achieve moral growth by emulating the Almighty's behavior - not to influence spiritual forces into helping meet our own egotistical desires.

In other words: Idolatry is wrong because it is false! A graven image is an inanimate object incapable of accomplishing anything. There is nothing "real" behind the wood and stone. Compare this to the Almighty Who is responsive to one's needs and holds the keys to all success and failure. Says the Talmud: "The seal of God is Truth."

Similarly, revisionist history is the wrong approach. We cannot escape "reality" with the stroke of a pen. So too with the Creator of the universe. We must strive not to fashion God in our own image, but rather to fashion ourselves in the image of God.

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