Worship of Hashem vs. Worship of Self: Why the Torah Considers Idol Worship Such a Severe Sin
The seminal event in parshat Ki Tisa is, of course, the egel. It seems quite astounding that so soon after matan Torah at Har Sinai, Bnei Yisroel violated one of the fundamental prohibitions in the Torah - indeed, the second commandment - not to worship a graven image.
To be sure, the consensus of the commentators (Ramban, Ibn Ezra) is that Bnei Yisroel did not view the egel as a deity. Rather, concerned that Moshe had died, they sought an alternative intermediary to worship Hashem. Yet, Moshe repeatedly refers to the cheit ha'egel as "chata'ah gedola" - a grave sin (Shemos 32:21, 32:30, 32:31).
In other contexts, the Torah makes clear that the worship of graven images is a more severe sin than any other. In the sefer Parperaot LaTorah, Menachem Baker makes an interesting observation about the language in Ki Savo 27:15: "Arur ha'ish asher ya'aseh pesel u'masecha - Cursed is the man who will make an idol." He questions why the pasuk is phrased in the future tense (asher ya'aseh - who will make), instead of the present tense - "arur oseh pesel u'masecha - cursed is the man who makes an idol." The use of the future tense makes the pasuk inconsistent with the rest of the curses, which are all phrased in the present tense - e.g., "arur makleh aviv v'imo - cursed is one who strikes his father and mother," or "arur masig gevul ray'ayhu - cursed is one who invades the boundaries of his friend." Why the different tense for idol worship?
The answer is that with all other transgressions, Hashem punishes the actual sinful act, but not thoughts to commit the sinful act. As per Kiddushin 40a: "machashava ra'ah ein hakadosh baruch hu metzarfa la'ma'aseh - Hashem does not deem the sinful thought an action."
However, when it comes to avoda zara, the mere thought to commit such a sin is deemed equivalent to action, and warrants punishment. Hence the language in the pasuk - "asher ya'aseh" in the future tense, and not "asah" in present tense - i.e., once the thought to commit avoda zara is formed, it's equated with action and culpability attaches.
So to frame the question: why does the Torah consider avoda zara such a severe sin to the extent that sinful thought is equated with sinful deed? Answering this inquiry will, in turn, help us understand why the creation of the egel - a tangible intermediary to Hashem - was such a dangerous development.
The Talmud, Sanhedrin 63b, makes an important psychological point about avoda zara. It states:
"Amar Rav Yehudah amar Rav: yode'in hayu Yisrael be'avodah zarah she'ein bah mamash velo avdu avodah zarah elah le'hattir la'hem gilui arayot be'farhesia."
"Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Yisrael knew that idolatry was meaningless, they only served it in order to permit themselves sexual licentiousness in public."
The gemara is explaining that everyone knows that avoda zara is nonsense - what intelligent, thinking individual really believes that an inanimate object has divine powers? Rather, the real danger lies in the fact that idolatry provides those who follow it with a license to engage in immorality.
For an individual who believes in G-d, the next logical step is that G-d has given us a blueprint by which to conduct our lives - a roadmap, so to speak, that teaches us what is right and what is wrong. As Jews, we believe this blueprint is the Torah, and we strive to conform our behavior to the Torah even when its guidelines conflict with our subjective personal preferences and desires. In other words, following the Torah means subjugating one's subjective desires to the objective guidelines of right and wrong established by Hashem and transmitted to the Jewish people via Moshe Rabbenu, and thereafter interpreted by the Torah scholars in each generation.
However, what if one terribly desires some objective or object, and perceives that the only way to get it is by flouting G-d's will (as expressed through the Torah)? Maybe it is money. Or power. Or the fulfillent of sensual desires.
To the extent one can remove G-d from the equation - to confine G-d in some way so that His will is not a relevant factor in one's day-to-day decisionmaking and moral choices -- then it becomes much easier to indulge one's desires. As per the gemara in Sanhedrin, this is exactly what avoda zara accomplishes. For the ancients, confining G-d to an inanimate object, or more broadly, by denying that G-d exists, or if He does exist, that He has no interest in the ongoing, day-to-day affairs of mankind, enabled them to abandon (or ignore) the objective standards of right and wrong established by G-d, and begin making decisions based on their own subjective desires (for a related discussion touching on how unconscious bias can be used to promote a permissive lifestyle, see Strive for Truth, Part 3, Eng. transl. at pages 173-176).
This idea is developed nicely by Rabbi Akiva Tatz in Letters to a Buddhist Jew where he explains at length (in the chapter titled "Idolatry") as we did above that the idol worship forbidden by the Torah is not the belief that inanimate objects have divine powers - that is utter foolishness and need not be addressed by the Torah. Instead, Rabbi Tatz explains, what the Torah warns against is the worship of G-d's intermediaries - the objects by which G-d exerts his Will in the world (be it the sun, the moon, and the stars in ancient times, or money in modern times) - rather than worshipping G-d Himself.
Because, Rabbi Tatz continues, one who worships Hashem directly must be concerned about his obligations to Him - what does He demand of Me? Whereas one who worships intermediaries - the proximate source of all human needs (power, love, wealth, etc.) - is only interested in what they can do for him and how they can serve him. In essence then, idol worship is the worship of the self. Stated differently, what the Torah demands is that G-d is primary. With idol worship, man and his desires become primary.
Obviously, society risks breaking down if each individual is free to make his or her own decisions about right and wrong based on subjective desires. If the standards of right and wrong derive only from man, then each individual can rightly ask what gives another individual the authority to dictate to me what is right and what is wrong (see Permission to Believe by Lawrence Kelemen at 21-28 where the author explains why lack of belief in G-d precludes the existence of universally accepted ethical and moral principles; for an excellent article on the logic of universally accepted objective moral and ethical standards, and the Torah as an authentic embodiment of such standards, see Rav Dovid Gottlieb's Living Up to the Truth).
At the extreme, when moral choices are based on personal expediency, there can emerge reshaim gemurim like Hitler or Stalin who abandon all moral constraints (even to the extent of engaging in mass murder) to achieve absolute power. The ends justify whatever means are required to achieve them.
In sum, avoda zara opens the floodgates to sin because it frees people from having to follow an objective standard of right and wrong, and instead allows them to choose between right and wrong based on their own self-centered desires and preferences. Because such an attitude has the potential to lead mankind down a slippery slope towards self-destruction (e.g., societies run by dictators who rule by personal whim), the Torah treats avoda zara severely to the extent that even thought is punished. The Torah does not want to allow one to even get started thinking in that direction.
This is why the egel was such a dangerous development. While Bnei Yisroel's intentions might have been good at the time as many of the commentators argue, the risk is that the egel, as a tangible representation of Hashem, would eventually supplant Hashem. That in pursuit of various desires, Bnei Yisroel might eventually begin worshipping the intermediary, instead of what the intermediary represented - Hashem. Which in turn would allow them to substitute their own subjective judgments for the Torah's dictates of right and wrong in order to attain their desires.
But one might ask - where is the risk of avoda zara today for us as individuals? How often is it that we are tempted by avoda zara in our daily lives? Never, it would seem.
But human nature doesn't change, and the fact is, substituting our own subjective standards for the standards of the Torah remains, unfortunately, a common phenomenon.
We remarked how incredible it seemed that Bnei Yisroel descended to idol worship so quickly after the Har Sinai experience. But yet isn't it equally puzzling how often we find seemingly religious people that pray with fervor in shul, and learn with intensity in the beis midrash, can then go out into the business world and engage in theft and fraud? How can it be that ostensibly frum individuals can so blatantly flout the Torah?
Our discussion here suggests that such individuals have confined Hashem to the shul or beis midrash in much the same way that worshippers of avoda zara confined Hashem to inanimate objects. It's not that these individuals don't claim to believe in Hashem. They'll tell you that Hashem determines the wealth of each individual, and that they regularly pray for parnasa.
But in their lust for wealth, when push comes to shove, these individuals have subconsciously removed Hashem from the equation, and substituted their own subjective opinions about the means permitted to acquire wealth instead of asking what the Torah authorizes. Much as the ancients adopted idolatry to permit licentiousness, such individuals marginalize Hashem in order to authorize actions that are clearly contrary to the Torah.
This then is the contemporary message of the egel. To continually evaluate our actions to ensure that they conform with Hashem's Will (as expressed through the Torah), and to guard against removing Hashem from our calculations and substituting our own subjective judgment of right and wrong when making choices.
And to add another contemporary message, we can perhaps now better understand the statement in the gemara that equates anger with idol worship. Anger is generally aroused due to dissatisfaction with circumstances or events. Subjectively, we feel that we don't deserve to be treated a certain way, or that certain events that have occurred are unfair or unjust. But since all events are under the control of Hashem, doesn't anger represent a denial of such control? In this respect, anger is also a form of avoda zara insofar as we are substituting our own judgment as to the way things should be for the reality that if something happened it is because Hashem intended it to happen. As such, there is no reason to be angry because it is Hashem's Will that is driving events.