The translation of the title of this
week’s portion is “judges”, which is the first commandment mentioned this
week, i.e. the commandment to
establish judges. This commandment includes the warnings against crooked
judgment. Immediately after this commandment, we find a few commandments
relating to idolatry (not to plant an ashera
— a tree associated with idolatrous practices — not to build a private
altar, and to apply the death penalty for idol worship).
What is the connection between having
honest judges and exhorting the Jewish people not to be involved in any way with
We often hear people voice the refrain,
“Isn’t it enough to be a good person? Why
do I have to believe in G-d?” The juxtaposition between ethical judges, the
bedrock of any moral society, and the
rejection of idolatry, teaches us that one becomes a good person precisely because
of a belief in G-d.
The second commandment regarding
idolatry is the law that forbids us from making private altars. “And you shall
not erect for yourselves a pillar which G-d hates” (Deut. Ch.16 V.22).
This is an unusual commandment because we find that in the times of our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yacov, the setting up of private altars was beloved in the eyes of G-d. Why now is it forbidden?
Many of the commentators explain that
the reason for this is that this practice became synonymous with idolatry. Therefore G-d forbade it.
There is a similar underlying reason
for this prohibition. When was this practice beloved by G-d?
The practice was beloved by G-d in the time of the forefathers, when
there were families who walked in the way of G-d, but who were not yet a nation.
When the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai, they did so as a
group. The central idea of idolatry
is focused on how an individual can satisfy his own needs.
The central idea of Judaism is how, through performing the will of G-d,
we can improve the world.
So the idea of a central altar, located
in the temple — the place where people from all over congregate to feel G-d’s
presence — is the idea of unity, and of a nation rising together to improve
the world. And the idea of a private altar, specifically after there has already
been a group acceptance of the word of G-d, is focused on the selfish approach,
the approach of what can I gain, as opposed to what can we do together.
May we always be focused on Judaism’s ultimate goal: to raise ourselves up as a nation worthy of improving the world.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the Outreach Director at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.