by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – August 24, 2011
In the Torah section of Re’eh (Devarim 12:2-3), G-d exhorts the children of Israel upon their entry into the Land of Israel at the time populated, as discussed previously, by the bestial pagan Canaanites: “You shall utterly destroy all the places wherein the nations which you shall possess served their gods…And you shall overthrow their altars and break their pillars and burn their [idolatrous] groves with fire and you shall hew down the graven images of their gods and you shall destroy their names.” This exhortation is a further amplification of what we read in G-d’s presentation of the Ten Commandments. After stating “I am G-d … who took you out of Egypt,” G-d exhorts us, “You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence. You shall not make yourself a carved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them” (Sh’mot 20:1-5).
In his Moreh Nevukhim 3:37, Maimonides explains that G-d’s commanding us to eradicate any remnant of idolatry serves to offset the possibility of our attributing any good fortune to the possession of or to being in the proximity of an idol which, in turn, would cause the destruction of man’s essential and immortal self – his spiritual being – by drawing him away from belief in the true G-d and compliance with His laws.
In the same vein, G-d warns us that if a false prophet should arise and bid us, “Let us go after other gods…that prophet…shall be put to death because he has spoken to turn you away from the L-rd your G-d…to drive us out of the way which the L-rd your G-d commanded you to walk in so shall you remove the evil from your midst” (Devarim 13:3-6). Likewise, if any individual or the inhabitants of a city preach the adoption of idol worship, G-d commands us to remove them from our midst.
We must remove such objects and people that threaten the annihilation of our very essence – our immortal spirit – just as it is incumbent upon any sensible and mindful individual to stop a person who is threatening his life in any manner necessary for the sake of self-preservation.
Our G-d has commanded us to obey a wide range of laws and moral principles which give our lives true meaning, among which is G-d’s commandment to be compassionate. Nevertheless, G-d advises us, “One should live with them” (Vayikra 18:5). And one should bear in mind our Sages’ declaration: “One who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate” (Kohelet Rabba 7:16). Unless we preserve our very existence – both physical and spiritual – there will be no one to fulfill G-d’s holy laws and no meaning left to mankind.