The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35
Idolatry and the power of Repentance

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Our portion tells the story of the sin of the golden calf, which took place only forty days after all Israel stood at Mt Sinai in awe and trembling to hear God's solemn injunction:

"You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any kind of likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them." (Exodus 20:3).

This is the second of the Ten Commandments. After all the people heard them, Moses ascended Mt Sinai for forty to receive all the details of the Torah code, while the people awaited his return in order to lead them up from the wilderness to the Promised Land. But when the expected moment of Moses' reappearance passed, the people feared he was lost for ever and set themselves to make a visible "god" that would lead them:

"And when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mount, the people gathered together with Aaron and said to him: 'Get up and make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' Aaron said to them: 'Break off the golden rings in the ears of your wives, sons and daughters and bring them to me.' . And he received it from their hand and fashioned it with a sculpting tool and made it a molten calf. And they said: 'These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.' . And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt-offerings, and peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry" (Exodus 30:1-6).

The Torah sages taught that this "merry-making" included the murder of any opponents as well as the embrace of complete sexual license (see Rashi on Exodus 30:6 and Genesis 21:9). Thus idolatry led the people to very opposite of the Torah path they had been commanded.

How was it possible for people who had witnessed God's revelation of His absolute unity and sovereignty to fall to these depths only forty days later?

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, taught that there was a divine necessity in Israel's fall and subsequent repentance, because in and of themselves they should not have sinned since God Himself testified that at the time when they accepted Torah at Sinai they had true fear of God (Deuteronomy 5:26). If they sinned, it came to teach the entire world that it is possible to repent - for as soon as Moses did return and showed them the gravity of their sin, they repented. And in future, if any community would err into idolatry, we can say to them: Go and learn from Israel that even after a sin, it is always possible to repent (Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 4b).

What is idolatry?

We all need to understand what is considered to be idolatry since it is prohibited in the second of the Ten Commandments heard by Israel at Sinai (Exodus 20:3, quoted above), and also under the first of the Seven Noahide Laws, which apply to all humanity.

The prohibition of idolatry has two aspects: (1) It is prohibited to serve and worship any power less than the Absolute One God - HaShem; (2) It is forbidden to use statues or graven image of any creature in the service of HaShem, let alone in the service of some subordinate power. Violation of either of these aspects impugns the absolute unity and sovereignty of God.

The Unity of God

Moses Maimonides writes in the opening words of his comprehensive compendium of Torah law:

"The foundation of all foundations. is to know that there exists the First Existent, and He brought into being all that exists, and all the existents in the heavens and on earth and all that is in between exist only in virtue of His existence. This Existent is the God of the World and Lord of all the Earth, and He runs the cycle with a power that has no end or limit, with a power that is never interrupted, so that the cycle turns continuously. It is impossible that it could turn without one turning it, and He, blessed be He, is the One that turns it without a hand and without a body..

"This God is one and not two or more than two but one in a way to which no other unity is comparable, neither the unity of one of the entities that exist in the world nor a unity that comprises numerous entities together, nor a unity such as that of the body, which is divided into different sections and limbs, but a unity such that there is no other unity in the world to compare with it" (Mishneh Torah, Foundations of the Torah, 1:1).

Prohibition of graven images

Since God's absolute unity and sovereignty are totally beyond the comprehension of the human mind, it is strictly forbidden to use images of entities in this world to try to conceive of Him, let alone to worship subordinate entities and to use images in their service, because this necessarily detracts from God's supremacy.

Thus Moses warned Israel: "Therefore take good care of yourselves - for you saw no kind of form on the day that HaShem spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you deal corruptly and make for yourself you a graven image, the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flies in the heaven, the likeness of any thing that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth; and lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars - all the host of heaven - you be drawn away and worship them and serve them. " (Deuteronomy 4:15-19).

Maimonides' defines idolatry as follows: "The essential commandment against idolatry prohibits worshipping any one of all the creations - not an angel nor a sphere nor a star nor one of the four elements ("fire", "water", "spirit" or "earth") nor any one of all the beings created out of them. And even though the worshipper knows that HaShem is the God and intends to serve this created being in the way that Enosh and his generation worshipped [the stars as if to give honor to God's ministers] this is idolatry." (Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 2:1).

The penalty for idolatry

The Torah lays down very severe penalties for idolatry:

"Every person who worships idols willfully and flagrantly is liable to spiritual excision, and if witnesses were present and he received due warning, he is executed through stoning, while if he worshipped unwittingly he must bring a fixed sin offering" (ibid 3:1).

However these penalties may not be imposed without due legal process, and in the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Sanhedrin (Court of the Sages) on the Temple Mount, no court of law in the world is competent to inflict them, let alone the self-appointed "religious police" who take the law into their own hands to punish supposed idolaters, as in the case of the various radical terrorists who justify indiscriminate terror outrages against masses of innocent men, women and children on the grounds that the terrorists and their handlers deem these victims guilty of supposed idolatry. Only a duly constituted Torah court can determine what is or is not idolatry, and even in cases of suspected idolatry, all due processes of law must be fulfilled (cf. Rambam Laws of Idolatry 4:5-6).

It is easy to see that clear-cut cases of polytheistic religious worship involving the use of statues and other images of the deities (as in ancient Greece and Rome) contravene the Torah prohibition of idolatry. However, it can be far more problematic to determine if certain practices in the so-called monotheistic religions are to be considered idolatrous or not under Torah law.

Certain forms of Christianity seemingly involve the worship of the Godhead through different personae, yet elaborate theologies explain that they are all one: is this idolatry? Some Christians use statues and images in their rituals, yet they claim that the object of worship is not the statue or image itself, which functions only to direct the mind to God. Are Buddhist statues idolatrous? Are Hindu statues idolatrous? Is the veneration of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or the Kaaba in Mecca or the grave of some saint or righteous person idolatrous? Is having pictures of saints or other inspiring figures around the house idolatrous? What about pictures of film stars and sports heroes.?

Serving an intermediary

The story of the Golden Calf teaches that the essence of idolatry is the veneration of some subsidiary force or power in itself in place of the worship and service of the One God. Under this definition, idolatry may often be far subtler than the mere crude worship of statues of wood and stone, gold and silver.

Thus for some people the intermediary to whom they look for security, help and support is their wealth and assets, accumulated through the work of their hands. "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of the hands of man" (Psalms 115:4). Sometimes sick people and those around them behave as if they believe that the doctors and their medicines are the gods. The terrorist looks to his machine gun and explosives as his gods and source of power.

In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:

"Many people make the mistake of turning the means through which something comes about into an intermediary between themselves and God. They do believe in God, but they also believe in the intermediary, saying that we have no option but to depend upon a particular means in order to bring about a certain result. For example, they put their faith in their business activities as the cause of their livelihood, placing all the emphasis on their own endeavors as if God would somehow not be able to provide their livelihood without them. Likewise people put all the emphasis on the means through which a cure comes about - the medicine - as if without medicine God does not have the power to heal. That is not so. The Holy One, blessed be He, is the Cause of all causes, and there is absolutely no need for any one particular means. Even while resorting to a given means to try to bring something about, we must believe only in God, and not put our faith in the means (Likutey Moharan I, 62).

We need to understand the laws of idolatry not in order to impose the death penalty on those who think and behave differently from the way we do, but rather so that we ourselves may learn to avoid the subtle forms of idolatry of which we ourselves may be guilty, and so that we may encourage others to understand where they are in error in order to help them to repent.

When Israel sincerely repented of the sin of making the Golden Calf, God forgave them. This makes it easier for all who have sinned after them to repent.




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