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Hirsch At Your Table

Eliminating Idolatry

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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והורשתם את כל יושבי הארץ מפניכם ואבדתם את כל משכיתם ואת כל צלמי מסכותם תאבדו ואת כל במותם תשמידו. והורשתם את הארץ וישבתם בה כי לכם נתתי את הארץ לרשת אותה. (Nm 33:52-53)
As the people of Israel are poised to cross the Jordan and take possession of the land, God tells Moshe to remind the nation of the dangers of idolatry. The Jews must destroy all the symbols of idol worship, the graven images, and the elevated sites where idolatry was practiced. They must take all measures to insure the appropriateness of the land for them to take possession and live in it.

These two verses set the condition for taking possession of the land. The goal of these conditions was essentially to eradicate all vestiges of idolatry. However, even the act of taking possession of the land is predicated on כי לכם נתתי את הארץ/God gave you the land. Taking possession was not due to any special right or power that the Jews had. Their ability to take possession was due entirely to God's wishes.

The Torah is replete with reminders of the dangers of idolatry in all its forms and the insidious impact that such practices could have on the Jews. Now as the nation is about to enter and take the land, they are warned to eliminate all signs and symbols of idolatry. These included the צלמי מסכות/cast images that were worshipped, the במות/elevated surfaces, upon which sacrifices were brought, and even the משכיות/symbolic representations, that indicated the worshipper's gratitude to the idol. The Torah ties the destruction of these elements to the successful taking possession of the land.

The word צלם is from the root צ-ל-ם which means "to cover a form". The word מסכות is from the root נ-ס-ך "to pour". Graven images are made by pouring molten substances into a frame. The word במות is from the root ב-מ-ה "to elevate". The word משכיות is from the root ש-כ-ה which means "to arouse thought" usually through the use of symbols.


The operative word in these two verses is והורשתם, usually translated as "inheriting". However Hirsch has an entirely different view as to what והורשתם can mean. The word והורשתם is repeated in both of these verses. (The second verse also has the word in its infinitive form: לרשת.)
The words והורשתם and לרשת are from the root י-ר-ש which means "to dispossess and take possession in place of someone else". In the causative form, used in this verse, it refers to a forcible change of ownership and possession. A cognate of the root י-ר-ש is the root ג-ר-ש which means "to drive away".


The Jews were to forcibly remove the current inhabitants of the land/כל יושבי הארץ and to take possession of the land in their stead. This was to be followed by the destruction of specific idolatry practices. The use of the word והורשתם refers both to the inhabitants and to their idolatrous ways.

The word יושבי is from the root י-ש-ב which means "to dwell in peace".


The command to the people was to drive the inhabitants out of the land and to remove any rights to the land of the previous possessors. However, exclusive ownership does not yet make the land appropriate for settling and living. Hirsch sees the second mention of the word והורשתם as referring to וישבתם בה/settling in it. The Jewish people must forcibly cleanse the newly taken land in order to truly possess it and settle in it.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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