What’s So Bad About Avoda Zara?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rivital Singer

I’ve always had a problem with Judaism’s obsession and fear over avoda zara. It is considered one of the worst sins there is (even for non-Jews), and is more severe than many many mitzvot that seem to me to be much more important.

As a believing Jew I agree that belief only in one G-d is what’s right, but as a liberal modern member of the twenty first century I also believe in accepting other people’s opinions. I tend to lean towards the views expressed in Neviim that mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro –(between man and man)– take precedence over mitzvot bein adam l’makom –(between man and G-d), and in Chazal that “derech eretz kadma latorah”.

So why is avoda zara considered so awful that the punishment for it is death, for Jews and non-Jews alike? Why do we see it as necessary to get rid of other nations living among us who worship avoda zara?  What are we so afraid of that even someone who is held at gunpoint is not allowed to worship an idol?

This week’s parsha tells the story of Bilam, the non-Jewish prophet of G-d, who is called upon by the Moabite king Balak to curse the Jews so that they don’t conquer him. Bilam says that he’ll only go if he gets G-d’s permission, but he doesn’t take G-d’s no for an answer; he tries again as the Moabites keep raising their offer.  Finally he gets permission to go so long as he speaks only the words G-d tells him, and he’s on his way.

Then there’s this really crazy science-fiction-like part where an angel stands in Bilam’s way multiple times, but only the donkey notices. Bilam hits the donkey for stopping in the middle of the road three times.  G-d “opens the donkey’s mouth” and she speaks, asking Bilam why he keeps hitting her, and finally Bilam sees the angel before him. He offers to return home, but the angel says he has permission to go – again, so long as he only speaks the words G-d tells him.  

Bilam goes to Balak and they sacrifice animals for G-d hoping that he’ll let Bilam curse the Jews. Every time it doesn’t work, they don’t take no for an answer; they move on to a new place with new animals. They sacrifice seven animals every time, as seven is a very powerful number, and they try to go to places and use animals that they think will please G-d.  But every time only blessings come out of Bilam’s mouth.

The story of Bil’am ends here, but the parsha continues by telling how the Jews started worshipping avoda zara.  This opens the story of Pinchas, and therefore should begin next week’s parsha.   Why is this very short passage included instead at the end of Balak?

My claim is that the parsha puts these stories together to teach us about the dangers of Avoda Zara.

I once asked my dad why Avoda Zara is seen by the Torah as so awful, and he told me that it might not be so much about the fact that one is worshipping a being other than G-d, but rather the culture that comes with that. I asked him exactly what he meant but he said he didn’t think he could compare it to anything I would understand since he doesn’t believe the avoda zara culture still exists today.

Reading the story of Balak and Bilam though, I think I may have gotten a glimpse into this culture. Bilam is a monotheist who believes in our G-d, but I think it’s safe to assume that he is immersed in a culture that does not. When asked to come curse the Jews, he understands that he needs G-d’s permission, but he does not understand the moral problem with Balak’s request. Therefore he keeps asking to go, and believes that G-d may change His mind.  When he gets to Balak,they uses every mystical gadget they know; they use powerful numbers and special designated places and other such means to try and please G-d so that He’ll do what they want.

That is how avoda zara works. The goal is to try and please the gods, and then they in turn will help humans. The gods are looking to fulfil their own desires rather than create a just society. Therefore, if one pleases them, they will help him in return.

That is not how G-d rules the world. G-d wants us to think about our actions and not just about the ways to please Him. He wants us to have our own moral compass and see that what we’re doing is wrong without Him having to always tell us straight out that we’re not allowed. His ruling of the world is one of justice, and therefore we can’t change His mind by means of mysticism. If there’s a way to “sway what G-d wants” it is to approach Him on a moral level. Convince Him that what you’re doing is right, not that it’s in His best interest.

According to this reading, avoda zara is about feeling that one can do whatever they want so long as they please the right G-d, rather than knowing that actions have consequences. On the other hand, G-d is not a little kid that can be swayed when you give him candy or sacrifice things you love. He is a father and a king who cares for the wellbeing of his people, whether or not they are doing exactly the right thing to please him at the moment.

The story of Bilam shows that this cultural destruction doesn’t only affect the people who buy into the religion, but also other people who are immersed in the culture and might begin to imitate their ways. If this is really the problem with avoda zara, we have a lot to work on even today, when there don’t seem to be nearly as many idol worshipers. We need to constantly be aware of our actions and see that we’re doing things for the right reasons. We need to double and triple check that our speech and our actions are motivated not by our desires or the desires of those above us in the hierarchy, but by what we think is right and moral and good.

Rivital Singer (Midreshet Avigayil 2015) just completed her year of pre-army Mechina in Israel.  

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