Parshat Reeh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
Rabbi David Stav
The Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) is comprised of three important sermons delivered by Moses, and our parsha centers on the most important of the three, concerning the commandments. One of the most important commandments that Moses tends to emphasize concerns the rampant idol worship that existed in the world at the time. One of the first things we were commanded to do once we entered the Promised Land was to utterly destroy the idols and shrines dedicated to idol worship, “upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree.”
In fact, the Torah uses to series of harsh expressions in this regard: “… and you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place.”
This commandment could not be more clear, and it leaves no room for doubt or discretion. We were commandment to completely obliterate all the idols in the land. We could infer that this demand stems from the fear that once the nation entered the land and would become exposed to its dominant pagan culture, it could be influenced by that culture and its decadent ways. This might be why the demand is so clear-cut, calling on us to wipe out any trace of idol worship.
However, if so, the next verse presents a problem: “You shall not do so to the Lord, your God”. This verse caused many of our Sages to scratch their heads: who could ever conceive that they would do such a thing? Why would the nation of Israel want to destroy sites dedicated to the worship of God? Is not the very basis of the commandment to destroy idol worship predicated on our belief in the God of Israel? Why would any God-fearing individual want to destroy places meant for the worship of God?
The Sages offered several answers to this question. Some suggested that the verse aims to warn the nation not to worship God at a number of scattered sites, a practice that was the norm for other nations, and instead worship God only at a single spot of His choosing.
Others suggested that the verse refers to removing a stone from the altar or temple, even if there is no intention to destroy the entire structure (and some used this precept to substantiate the prohibition of destroying a synagogue, even if a more splendid structure were to be built at the same spot). Still others noted that this issue refers to effacing the name of God from a rock or any other place where His name appears.
However, Rabbi Yishmael (a 2nd-century Mishnaic sage) digressed from the literal meaning of the verse, presumably because of the complexity of this dilemma. He explains that the Torah wishes to warn us not to commit the evil deeds that led to the destruction of the Temple – which is exactly what happened years later. This explanation, too, seems a bit detached from the powerful words in the verse: “You shall not do so to the Lord, your God”. Could the Torah, rather, be contending with a different issue?
We must admit that for people like us, who live in the modern world, the commandment to destroy idols seems a bit harsh. The Western world is founded on the principle of freedom of religion and the freedom of conscience, so any commandment to harm the deity of another individual or group seems to violate this freedom.
Besides, by being so obsessive about seeking out and destroying idols, we could end up paying a very high spiritual and emotional price. Those who get too caught up on contesting the beliefs of others instead of focusing on the good in their own faith may become heartless, spending every waking hour nitpicking in other people’s proverbial backyards, instead of building their own internal reality.
Thus, this raises another fear, paraphrased in the expression: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” When people burn idols, they may end up destroying the synagogues of those whose traditions and opinions are different. The Torah may be emphasizing the prohibition to do the same to those who intend to worship the God of Israel, as we did to the idol worshippers.
Idol worship is so inhumane, and morally and socially bankrupt (it involves practices such as burning children as an offering to the deity Molech), that we have no choice but to eradicate it from the world.
This, however, is the exception that proves the rule. The commandment to “… not do so to the Lord, your God” exists to emphasize that the main approach the Torah prescribes is not to obliterate others. Having a wide range of opinions and thoughts only serves to enhance and elevate the worship of God. If we peruse the literature of the Oral Law, it becomes abundantly clear to us that our culture welcomes discourse and has always ensured that if people are prepared to accept the rules of this discourse, they will never be cast out of our midst.