Many of the commandments that are
incumbent upon the Jewish people upon their arrival in the land of Israel are
mentioned in this week’s portion.
One of these commandments is the
obligation to destroy all vestiges of the
previous inhabitants’ idolatry: “You shall break apart their altars, you
shall smash their pillars, and their sacred trees shall you burn in the fire.
Their carved images you shall cut down, and you shall obliterate their names
from that place.” (Deut. Ch.12 V.3).
The concept that the Jewish
people shall not worship idols, and instead will believe in G-d alone, is well
known to us. Yet, why is it necessary to obliterate all remnants of idolatry? Would it not be better to put them to use in a different
fashion? Furthermore, we know that everything in the Torah is relevant for all
time; what is the relevance of this commandment?
In order for us to understand
this commandment, we must first understand why idolatry is forbidden. The belief
in idolatry represents randomness. That is, nothing has any intrinsic meaning -
rather, life is a series of events that can be manipulated for one’s own
personal gain. Good and bad have no relevance in the religion of idolatry.
Whatever a person can do to improve his lot — even at the expense of others
— is his right.
The belief in G-d and the Torah
is the complete opposite of this. We believe that goodness does matter.
And when the belief in randomness
is taken to its obvious conclusion, then the trait of negativity and cynicism
takes hold. And if all of life is one glorified rat race, with no direction, and
the winner at the end of the day is the one with the most money, and all facets
of good and evil are purely arbitrary, how can this not be the conclusion?
So what G-d is telling us that we
do not merely turn our backs on idols and all they represent: lack of meaning,
greed, negativity etc. Rather, we
destroy these traits.
In this day and age it is hard
not to be cynical and negative, for it feels as if we are constantly being let
down. Yet that is not the optimal human condition. G-d wants us to be positive
and optimistic. In fact, it says in the Talmud that mockery is permitted only in
regards to idolatry.
So let’s destroy the character traits of cynicism and negativity, and be optimistic about improving the world.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the Outreach Director at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.