In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we find a continuation of Moses’ second sermon to the Israelites. A significant part of the conversation is focused on reminding the Israelites of what they are to do when they conquer the land of Canaan. This comes with a particular emphasis on not falling prey to the foreign gods of the Canaanites.
With this in mind, Moses tells the Israelites of the “laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that Adonai, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth” (Deut. 12:1).
To this end they are to, “tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name for that site” (Deut. 12:3).
There is a lot of emphasis on idolatry both in the Torah and in the Neviim, the prophetic writings. One might think that God has an inferiority complex because God constantly demands the destruction of idols.
But there is something else going on here. Idols are man-made objects. They are the creation of human hands designed to represent something. The problem with idols is that it is of our human inclination to worship the work of our own hands rather than celebrate God’s creation. It is not that God has an inferiority complex, but rather God is concerned that we will elevate our idols above all that is holy.
What seems to be clear is a warning against making the work of our hands into false gods. Statues too can fall into this category. This is the core of what we are wrestling with as a nation. The question is are some of our statues a demonstration of history or an idol representing supremacy? If one places the needs of statue above the humanity of a fellow human being, they have effectively made that statue into an idol.
Tearing down idols is both a physical and metaphorical ideal. It is about placing God and divinity at the center of our world. Only when we tear down the idols of hate, can we truly make the land holy for what is good and decent.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff