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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Va'etchanan

Parashat Vaetchanan

Idols Where There Should be Ideals

The second commandment is not to make for ourselves any molten image; The Rebbe of Kutzk's explanation; A striking example from a story told in the Talmud.
3004
Dedicated to the memory of
Amram son of Sultana
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The first of the Ten Commandments requires us to accept Hashem as our G-d, without having any other form of deity. Yet, the Torah continues with another commandment, not to make for ourselves any molten image. It appears from the p’sukim that it is possible for one to have complete faith in Hashem and not worship another god, yet he could still be susceptible to having images of deities. What is the deeper meaning of this second commandment?

The Torah warns us, in our parasha (Devarim 4:23):
"Beware lest you forget the covenant with Hashem ... and you will make an idol, the image of anything, that Hashem commanded you.".

Rashi explains the end of the pasuk to mean "that Hashem commanded you [not to have]," but the pasuk’s literal reading implies that there is a type of idol that Hashem actually commanded. It is brought in the name of the Rebbe of Kutzk that there is a danger that one could take something that Hashem commanded, in other words, a mitzva, and turn the mitzva into an idol. For there are times that a person performs a mitzva, but does so in a hollow form, without the mitzva’s soul and spirit, thus making it like a lifeless idol, which is nothing but an image.

A striking example of such an external and meaningless approach to a mitzva can be found in the shocking story related by the gemara (Yoma 23a). The story occurred before the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash. Two kohanim were racing up the ramp to the altar. One stabbed the other in the heart, mortally wounding him. As people were crying, the father of the victim ran to his son and removed the knife. He called out that he had managed to remove the knife before his son died, thereby saving the knife from tumat meit (impurity from contact with the dead). The gemara concludes that we see that the purity of utensils was more significant to some people than murder.

The stones of the altar cannot be fashioned with the help of metal, because that which is reminiscent of the sword is inappropriate to be involved with the holiness of the altar. Similarly, King David was not allowed to construct the Beit Hamikdash because of his involvement in war. In the Holy of Holies, the set of keruvim, serve as symbols of brotherhood and peace, a theme that King Shlomo prayed for on a universal basis, at the Beit Hamikdash’s inauguration. So when a kohen is so "diligent" that he kills his closest competitor to reach the altar first, the diligence is not to the ideal behind service of Hashem, but to an empty, idolatrous form of the practice.
The father’s response, in the story, also shows a warped view of mitzvot. The laws of purity and impurity should imbue in us the value of life. For indeed, the highest form of impurity comes from the remains of a body, which once housed human life and is now lacking. Impurity in animals does not exist while the animal is still alive. In the period of the Second Temple, people were careful about the laws of purity, but it was the idol-like image of the mitzva that they observed, not the ideal behind it. Thus, the stricken father was consoled that the knife was pure, barely noticing the tragedy of his murder.

In our times as well , we must be aware that, although the inclination toward classical idol worship was "slaughtered," the commandment to avoid forming idols is still very relevant. It should remind us to think about the heart and soul of the mitzvot, not their "outer shell."
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