Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Tammuz 5764 - June 30, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Sign and Substance

by Rabbi N.Z. Grossman

Part I

Here and Now

HaRav Eliashiv's ruling about human hair from India being subject to the prohibition of an offering made to avodoh zora awakened an interest in the subject that has not yet died down. It is the first time that many of us have become aware of the existence of idol worshipers, living and practicing in our own day and age. The accounts of the ceremonies that are conducted in India and elsewhere in the Far East have reminded us that the halochos of avodoh zora are still of practical relevance.

The fact that hundreds of millions of people prostrate themselves before idols of one sort or another gives the rebukes with which our prophets castigated their brethren who worshiped wooden and stone images a much more contemporary ring.

Any reasonably intelligent person must wonder what leads people to devote their lives to such nonsense. How do such enormous numbers of people come to abandon all reason, worshiping images fashioned by human hands and placing their trust in foolish and ridiculous beliefs?

The fact that the topic has aroused such widespread and avid interest makes this a good opportunity to examine some of the ideas that surround it. The best place to start is the Rambam's classic account of the origin and development of idol worship, from which one of the great contemporary mussar teachers extracted some lessons that have great relevance for us.

To Honor the King's Servants

At the beginning of Hilchos Avodoh Zora the Rambam writes, "In the time of Enosh people made a great mistake, and wise men of the time gave foolish counsel and Enosh himself was among the mistaken ones. This was their mistake. They said, since G-d created these stars and heavenly spheres to control the world and He set them on high and accorded them honor, and since they are among the servants that minister to Him, they deserve to be praised, exalted and honored. This is the wish of G-d blessed be He -- that we should accord greatness and honor to those upon whom He has bestowed greatness and honor, just as a king wishes to honor those who stand in front of Him. This is the king's honor.

"Once this idea had come to them, they started building temples to the stars and offering them sacrifices, praising and glorifying them verbally and bowing down to them in order to gain the Creator's favor through their evil ideas. This was the basis of the worship of the celestial bodies and this was what those who served them who knew its basis said. Not that they imagined that there was no G- d besides [the stars etc. but they thought it proper to serve certain of G-d's creations as a way of serving Him] . . . (Halochoh 1).

"A long time later, false prophets arose among the people and said that G-d had instructed and told them, `Serve this individual star or all the stars. Offer it such-and-such sacrifices and libations. Build it a temple and fashion its form for all the people, women, children and other ignoramii, to bow down to.' He would tell them a form that he had imagined by himself and say that it was the form of the particular star that he had been shown in his prophecy. In this way, they started making forms in the temples, underneath the trees and atop the mountains and hills. They would gather together and bow down to them and tell all the people that this form had the power to benefit or harm them and that they ought to serve it and fear it. The priests told them that by doing this service they would increase and succeed and that they should do such and such and not do such and such. Other charlatans then began to arise and saying that the star itself, or the sphere or the angel had spoken to them and told them, `Serve me in this way' and had told them how it was to be served, `Do this and don't do that.'

A World Adrift

"This practice of serving these forms in different ways and sacrificing and bowing down to them spread throughout the world. After a long time had passed, the honored and fearsome Name [of Hashem] was forgotten from the lips and minds of all who existed, and they didn't know Him. All the common folk, women and children recognized only the wooden or stone form and the stone temple, to which they had been raised to bow, to serve and in whose name to swear. The wise men among them, such as their priests and the like, imagined that there was no G-d besides the stars and the spheres for whom and in whose likeness these forms had been made. As to the Rock of the Worlds, nobody recognized Him or knew Him beyond a few individuals such as Chanoch, Mesushelach, Noach, Shem and Ever. The world carried on like this until the birth of the world's [supporting] pillar, namely, Avrohom Ovinu (Halochoh 2).

From an early age, Avrohom Ovinu thought about the world and understood that it must have a Controller. " . . .His mind was roving and comprehending until he arrived at the path of truth and understood the right approach, through his correct way of understanding. He knew that there is . . . a single G- d and that He controls the spheres and created everything and that there is no other G-d in existence besides Him. He knew that the whole world was mistaken and what had led them to their mistake was that they served stars and forms until the truth had gone out of their minds . . . He smashed the idols and started telling the people that it was not right to serve anything besides the G-d of the world; that it was proper to bow down to Him, to offer sacrifices and libations, so that all future creations should recognize Him; that it was right to destroy and smash all the forms so that the people wouldn't go astray after them . . . He started getting up and loudly calling to everyone, telling them that the entire world has a single G-d, and it is He who should be served. He travelled from city to city, calling and gathering the people . . . " (Halochoh 3)

A Contemporary Message

In an essay entitled The Yetzer Hora For Avodoh Zora (Michtav Mei'Eliyahu vol. IV), HaRav Dessler quotes the Rambam's account and derives a lesson from it that is relevant in all times. While Torah observant Jews are certainly far from idol worship and anything associated with it, the mistakes of earlier generations demonstrate just how far it is possible to stray when focusing on ways and means, instead of on the ultimate aim.

"The Torah forbids making forms," writes Rav Dessler, "except to a very limited extent -- for example, the Keruvim in the Kodesh Hakodoshim which served as a means of our contemplating Hashem's traits and the way He directs the world such as, `see how you are loved by Hashem' (Yoma 54), and also the images that the prophets saw, like the Ma'aseh Merkovoh (Yechezkel chap. 1). These are all parables though, so that we can gain some idea of Hashem's glory.

"We serve Him and fulfill His mitzvos wholly for His sake and direct our prayers to Him -- to Hashem Himself, without any intermediaries. It is forbidden to make any form or to compose any image, even in our imagination, in order to contemplate His Being. This is the meaning of the posuk, `And you did not see any image' (Devorim 4:15). At matan Torah, He did not show them any picture or likeness by which to appreciate His actual Being, not even through prophecy and certainly not through any comparison that we ourselves make."

All this teaches us an important lesson, lack of clarity in which leads to serious misjudgement. Chazal observe, "How foolish people are -- they stand up for a sefer Torah but they don't stand up for a great man!" (Makkos 22). Rav Dessler explains what prompts people to honor a sefer Torah while they scorn Torah scholars in their hearts:

"This tendency still exists today. At first, a person uses a particular approach or method as an instrument, as a way of getting to know the inner content of the discipline that he wants to study. He accords the instrument respect on account of the inner teaching that it enables him to reach. Ultimately though, he comes to see the instrument as the object of veneration and completely forgets the inner content. The sefer Torah is the instrument that serves as a means of learning what Hashem wants from men. It is something tangible, which people can see and they thus honor it. However, the Torah's inner content that crystallizes within the great man is neither seen nor honored.

"In the same way, we ourselves see people who honor the means of performing a mitzva, for example, buying a costly silver menorah while it doesn't occur to them to think about the Chanukah miracle and use it to strengthen their faith and the like. They neglect the inner spiritual lesson and delude themselves by valuing the outward means of fulfilling the mitzvah. [There is of course an obligation to beautify the mitzvos we do but it is intended to enhance the mitzvah's spiritual essence, not supplant it by leading us to focus on outward trappings.]

"The yetzer hora of idolatry draws upon this very tendency. A person feels the urge to employ a physical form to facilitate the consideration of an abstract idea, but ultimately he is just left with the form because it is something tangible and he loses the proper perspective of faith. Inner content tends to be displaced by the instrument that was to have led one to it."

End of Part I

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