Worship of Hashem vs. Worship of Self: Why the Torah Considers Idolatry 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.

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The Keruvim: Instruments of Emuna and Bitachon

One of the more fascinating and enigmatic ornaments discussed in parshat Teruma is the keruvim (the winged angelic figures made of gold) that stood on top of covering for the aron (ark) containing the luchos (Shemos 25:18).

What is striking about the command to fashion the keruvim, as Abarbanel points out, is that the Torah forbids the creation of carved idols (Shemos 20:4). So how could Hashem direct the creation of such figures? Was this not a contradiction of the prohibition against fashioning idols? Abarbanel and other commentators respond that the keruvim was not intended to serve as an intermediary (as, for example, the “egel” – the Golden Calf – was intended), but rather was intended to inspire a stronger connection and closeness to Hashem. How did the keruvim accomplish this?

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Atem-Emet: The Endurance of the Jewish People as Proof for G-d's Existence

Rashi on the very first pasuk in Nitzavim (29:9) writes that the intent of Moshe's statement "Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem - You are standing here today, all of you, before Hashem, Your G-d" - was to reassure Bnei Yisroel. After hearing the curses of last week's parsha, Bnei Yisroel turned white and feared for their survival - "how is it possible for us to withstand such curses?" To which Moshe responded "Atem nitzavim" - you are still standing. That is, you committed sins that angered Hashem, and yet He did not destroy you. Therefore, your standing here before Hashem today should reassure you that you will withstand the curses, and survive.

In a dvar Torah I heard from Rabbi Yehuda Tucker (who heard it in a broadcast shiur given by Rabbi Yissochar Frand), it was brought down in the name of the Chatam Sofer that the word "Atem" (Alef Tof Mem) - the Hebrew plural "you" - appears as the first word in a pasuk only 4 times in the entire Tanach (grab a concordance to prove this to yourself). Interesting trivia? Hardly. As we shall see, the context of those 4 pasukim is extremely intriguing, and ultimately alludes to one of the fundamental proofs for G-d's existence.

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