This week’s parsha Re’eh includes God’s commands to abolish idolatry and all its traces from the land we were about to inherit. Idolatry forms the second of the Ten Commandments as well as the fifth of Maimonides 13 Principles, giving it vital focus and demanding we fully grasp this fundamental. Additionally, Maimonides teaches that we derive a fundamental from the Rabbis: “One who admits to idolatry, denies all of Torah, all prophets and all that the prophets commanded from Adam through all generations. And concerning one who denies idolatry, he converse is true.” Maimonides adds, “and it [idolatry] is the essence of all the Mitzvos”. Let’s start by understanding that last statement.
How exactly the command not to violate idolatry the “essence”, let’s say, of waving the Lulav and Esrog? How is it the “essence” of rejoicing on the holidays through eating meat and drinking wine, or wearing tzitzis?
Maimonides does not mean idolatry forms the essence of the “act” of all commands, but rather, the “objective”. God gave literally each command with the goal being our realization of more of God’s wisdom. If we don’t understand the concepts in each command, Rashi says the performance is useless. This makes sense, for what benefit do we achieve when waving a palm branch and citron, if it is not motivated by some ideal? But if we study the Rabbis’ words, we realize that waving up and down demonstrates our acceptance of the One who created all that is up (in heaven) and down (on Earth). That is, God created all corners of the universe. And when we wave in the four, horizontal Earthly directions, we demonstrate our conviction that all man’s horizontal travels and doing are recognized by God, and that we benefit from His providence. Thus, God created all, and governs all. Now we can appreciate this command of waving produce at harvest time. Our very sustenance is due to the Creator. And this idea rejects the notion of idolatry.
Tzitzis calls to mind “all” mitzvos: “And you shall see them, and you shall recall all the mitzvos of God and you shall perform them, and you shall not go astray after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you deviate”. We possess senses and desires. We can easily be aroused by both, A) visuals and B) imagination. God commanded we wear an item that recalls the total Torah system. When about to sin, we are faced with this A) visual reminder that forces B) recollection of God. Tzitzis visually obscures a tempting visual, and the command to recall all the mitzvos is a mental activity that combats another internal function – our emotions. This restrain on our desires also conditions us not to follow idolatry, which is found only in our desires and not in reality. Contemplating the Torah system as well, focuses us on God, and mitigates the drive towards “other” beings.
Even the rejoicing with food on holidays generates good emotions associated with the holiday: a recollection of God’s providence. Thereby, we do not accept that an idol rescued us from bondage, or sheltered us in huts, or gave us the Torah. This is what Maimonides means by “idolatry is the essence of all the Mitzvos”. All mitzvos are to increase our appreciation for the only God, simultaneously rejecting the notion of idolatry.
Maimonides teaches the central theme of idolatry is that we must not worship anything created. This includes the sun, moon stars, angels and constellations, all the way down through humans, animals and plants and all elements and minerals. We must appreciate that the source of idolatry is human insecurity. If man were self-sufficient, having no worries or cares, he would not pray or seek assistance. But we are in fact, dependent, with needs. Intelligent people realize that as all in the universe is created, they do not seek assistance from anything or anyone except the Creator, the only being truly capable of assisting us. Maimonides adds that we also do not admit of God, while seeking intermediaries. The practice of seeking intermediaries in any form expresses a false view of God: that I cannot relate to Him directly, nor that He can relate to me directly. Worse, it expresses the idea that God is not independently sufficient, i.e., He requires an intermediary or assistant.
Idolatry includes a few major parameters: one cannot create idols or instruct others to make them; one cannot worship them; one cannot look at idols; one cannot derive any benefit from idols; one cannot create figurines for beauty even if not for idolatry; one must abstain from idolatrous practices like omens, horoscopes, amulets, consulting the dead, witchcraft; and one must destroy idols and all that is used in its worship.
Regarding the various objects under this prohibition of creating idols, we wonder how both Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch state that creating figures of animals is permissible, while Deuteronomy 4:17 teaches we cannot create such figures. Was not the Gold Calf a primary example? To compound this question, Deuteronomy 4:16 groups man with animals as the forms prohibited regarding the creation of replicas (idolatry). Thus, man and beast should be equal.
We must contrast the source prohibiting “idol” creation to the verse prohibiting the creation of figurines for “beauty” and not for worship.
Exodus 20:4 (the Ten Commandments) prohibits all forms of idols: “Do not create for yourself a statue of any form that is in heaven above and that is in the Earth below and that is in the water under the Earth.” (Deuteronomy 4:17 cites Moses’ additional warning not to do so.) In both cases, the Torah prohibits the replication of any being for the sake of “worship”. In this prohibition, man is no different than animal. So in what sense are animals (and plants) permitted?
The permitted replication of animals and plants is for beauty, like statues on one’s lawn, or in his home. When not created for idolatry but merely for decoration, we are taught that animals and plants can be replicated. Even decorative replicas of man and the heavenly bodies and angels would be permitted, were it not due to the Torah’s separate concern that erring individuals not be misled and follow idolatry. So as not to mislead people, even the creation of statues or figurines for decoration is prohibited, but this prohibition applies only to man, the heavenly bodies and angels.
The verse Maimonides cites for this second prohibition is Exodus 20:20: “Do not make with Me gods of silver, and gods of gold do not make for yourselves.” Notice the words “silver” and “gold”, i.e., ornamental materials. It is thereby learned that this verse does not come to prohibit idolatry, what Torah already prohibited in Exodus 20:4, but it must add a new prohibition. This addition is the creation of figurines that are ornamental in nature, and not idolatrous. Nonetheless, they are prohibited.
My friend Rabbi Roth suggested the exclusion of plants and animals from decorative purposes is due to their lack of intelligence. Thus, the Torah only went so far to protect people from error, and only prohibited decorative statues that reflect beings possessing intelligence and capable of answering man’s cries…those things that could possibly be treated as idols. But as plants and animals have no intelligence, the Torah did not go so far as to prohibit these categories of replicas, when not made for idolatry.
Perhaps another reason is that plants and animals of each species are identical. One can barely distinguish two lions, two zebras, or two maple trees. Thus, the individual member of each species offers man no satisfaction that “this one” is unique and worthy of worship. Thus, animals and plants are not prohibited when created for decoration or beauty. In contrast, the sun, moon, constellations and descriptions of angels are all unique. This uniqueness of each individual subject lends itself to man’s projection of “powers”, and thus idolatry. Therefore, these latter subjects are prohibited, even if created for beauty. But let’s further appreciate the Torah’s formulations…
What is the need for this additional verse, and command? Why are not the angels and the spheres subsumed under the primary prohibition taken from the first verse we quoted in the Ten Commandments, “Do not create for yourself a statue of any form that is in heaven above and that is in the Earth below and that is in the water under the Earth”?
Our second verse (Exod. 20:20) is precise…also saying Do not make “with Me”. “With Me” means to say “Do not make forms of ministers who minister before Me on high”, referring to the various angels and the spheres. Of course, God does not occupy space, so the heavenly spheres and angels are not “with” God.
“The Torah speaks in man’s language”, thus, “With Me” refers to subjects that man deems more closely related to God, such as the spheres and the angels. But “with Me” carries another idea…
This refers to a new category of idolatrous prohibition: objects not subject to replication.
We don’t know what God is. And anything “with God” implies that it shares something with God. But nothing is comparable to God! What then does this mean?
I believe the equation is that just as God is unknowable and not subject to replication, the angles too are not subject to replication. Even the spheres cannot be replicated, as Abbayeh taught. Maimonides too points to this distinction, as he says we cannot create the “similitude” (dimus) of the angels or the spheres. Maimonides does not use “similitude” when describing replications of man, since man can in fact be accurately replicated. Since the concept of a replica cannot apply to angels (of which we’re ignorant) or spheres (true replication is impossible due to sheer magnitude) Maimonides correctly includes these objects under a new heading, requiring a different verse for their prohibition. So the first verse in the Ten Commandments prohibits true idol creation. This includes those objects, which can be replicated, i.e., animals and man, and also anything made expressly for idolatrous use. But the Torah also warns against creating things incapable of replication: either due to its size (planets, sun, etc.) or due to our ignorance of what it is (angels). Such creation cannot be deemed “replicas” and thus, Maimonides places these laws under a different heading. We now appreciate the need for two verses.
As we said at the outset, Tzitzis guards against our nature to “see” and be led astray, or to “imagine” with our hearts and be led astray. The Torah is beautifully consistent, as we are warned not to replicate what we “see” (viz. animals), or what we “imagine” (angels).
God must be viewed as the Creator – the sole source of the universe. Idolatry assumes that God does not exist and there is something else, or that He does exist, but requires additional assistants to create or run His world.
The study of reality – science – and the study of Judaism both reject the notion of as Godless world that created itself or always existed; or a world where God is dependent on other imaginary forces. Thus, as Maimonides teaches, we have no need for – nor is there truth to intermediaries. No force exists, other than God. There is nothing, except for Him alone. We need only Him alone. For nothing can run the world, which He already created. No man or object can help us. We are taught to pray to Him alone. We can reach Him from anywhere.
Nothing can stop His payment to the righteous.
Nothing can save us from His punishment – not even mitzvos. The only recourse is Teshuva from that flaw.
 Laws of Star Worship 2:4
 Numbers 15:39
 Laws of Star Worship 2:1
 Laws of Star Worship 3:11
 Yoreh Daya 141
 Talmud Rosh Hashannah 24b, Laws of Star Worship 3:11
 Laws of Torah Fundamentals 1:9
 Isaiah 40:18
 Talmud Rosh Hashannah 24a
 Deut. 10:17. See Sforno’s commentary