By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
August 18, 2001
UPON ENTERING THE LAND, Moshe instructs the people of Israel, not only to serve
Hashem exclusively, and to avoid any contact with idolatry, but to eradicate any vestige of idolatry:
These are the statutes and the judgments, which you will observe to do in the land which Hashem, the G-d of your fathers, has given you to inherit, all the days that you live upon the earth. You shall utterly destroy all the places in which the nations that you are about to dispossess worshipped their gods, upon the high mountains and upon the hills and under every leafy tree. And you shall topple their altars, and you shall shatter their pillars, and their asherahs you shall burn in fire, and the images of their gods shall you cut down; and you shall destroy their names from that place. You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d. But at the place which Hashem, your G-d, will choose from all your tribes to put His Name there, to His habitation shall you seek and there shall you come (Devarim 12:1-5).
THE VERSE "You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d" comes as a surprising transition in this passage.
Rashi, based on the Sifrei (Re'eh 7), presents three different ways of understanding the function of this verse, "You shall not do so":
1. To offer sacrifices to Heaven [i.e., G-d] in any place, "But [rather, only] at the place which Hashem, your G-d, will choose" [shall you bring your sacrifices].
2. Alternately, "And you shall topple their altars. . . and you shall destroy their names…You shall not do so": This is the prohibition against one who erases the Name [of G-d] or who destroys a stone from the altar or from the Temple Court (Makkot 22a).
- Said Rabbi Yishmael: Would it ever occur to you that Israel would demolish the altars?! -
3. Rather, [they are warned] not to follow the nations and do the same deeds because their sins will cause the Sanctuary of their forefathers to be destroyed.
ACCORDING TO THE FIRST VIEW, "You shall not do so" refers to the verses ahead; according to the second and the third view, "You shall not do so" refers to the verses that have passed. Let's look at these views in depth:
1. As long as the people lived in the desert, the
Mishkan was the exclusive sanctuary, and no sacrifices were permitted anywhere else. As soon as the people would enter Canaan, the Mishkan would cease to be exclusive during the 14 years of conquest, so it would become permitted to offer sacrifices elsewhere as well, on local altars called bamot. Once the Temple would be built in "the place which Hashem, your G-d, will choose from all your tribes to put His Name there" (Jerusalem), bamot would then become prohibited for all time (refer to: Zevachim 119a; Rambam, Laws of the Sanctuary, 1:2-3.). Idolaters construct shrines to each of their many idols; for us, there is only One G-d, so the ideal situation is to have one sanctuary, one mode of service. Bamot were permitted as a concession to the yearning of the individual to come close to Hashem during those historic periods when lack of national unity prevented communal worship. The establishment of a permanent Temple, however, created the precedent of unified worship that permitted no subsequent concessions.
2. When an idolater erects an altar, pillar or image, he creates, through human action, an object that must be destroyed. Conversely, when the people of Israel construct the Sanctuary, Hashem sanctifies their human actions, such that no stone may be destroyed and no Name may be defaced or erased. This is the basis of a negative commandment
(Rambam, Book of the Commandments, neg. 65; Sefer HaChinuch [ascribed to R. Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona, mid-13th Century], # 437).
A NUMBER OF OTHER COMMENTARIES concur with these two views. Rashbam and Ibn-Ezra agree with the first view of Rashi. Targum Yonatan, Ramban, and Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim ben Moshe ibn-Attar, 1696-1743), among others, parallel the second view. Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470 - c.1550) incorporates both interpretations.
3. While the prohibition against destroying that which has been created for Hashem's honor is valid, it is hard to imagine that the primary intent of the verse is "Destroy idolatry, but do not destroy Hashem's Sanctuary." These two are opposites: one destroys idol-worship for the sake of Hashem; why should the one doing so have to be reminded not to act against Hashem?! Nevertheless, the Sanctuary can be destroyed indirectly, as punishment for transgressions.
BUT, THE QUESTION REMAINS: If you have waged all-out war against the forces of idolatry, you are undoubtedly devoted to Hashem, and should not be expected to sin. Against which transgressions is Rabbi Yishmael warning us?
THE SEFAT EMET (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter [1847-1905], second Rebbe of Ger) (Re'eh 5641), therefore, points to the sin of baseless hatred, the disunity which our Sages say was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple (Yoma 9b). It is tragically ironic that this sin can, and does, persist, even when the Jewish people are fully committed to worshipping Hashem.
FURTHERMORE, SAYS THE SEFAT EMET, all three of Rashi's views can be harmonized: There is only One G-d Who gave one Torah which forms the exclusive parameters for serving Him. He is to be served uncompromisingly, and that is the way to achieve unity among the Jewish people. But, when there is hatred among Jews - even when they serve Hashem in the same way (and, certainly, if they do not) - that is the greatest affront to the unity of G-d, and it must be remedied, first and foremost.
IN STRIVING TO IMITATE HASHEM, we must not only be as intolerant of misrepresentations of Judaism, but also as tolerant as He is of other Jews.