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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Hearing Hashem's Kol Throughout the Year (and What We Can Learn from the Story of Guma Aguiar)

The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva, 3:4) explains the message of the shofar as follows: "Awake, sleepers, from your sleep, amd slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds, and repent, and remember your Maker...look to your souls and improve your ways and your faults..."

There is a custom to sound the shofar at the conclusion of the Neilah service on Yom Kippur. What is the meaning of this practice? Hasn't our judgment already been sealed at that point? What value, then, does an additional shofar blast add?

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Torah Behavior Inside and Outside the House

In last week's parsha Ki Savo, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch comments on the pasuk (28:6): baruch ata b'voecha, u'baruch ata b'tzetecha - Blessed thou shalt be when you come, and blessed thou shalt be when you depart. Rav Hirsch explains: "you are blessed in your home life and in your public life."

IMHO, we can expand on Rav Hirsch's terse comment with an idea I heard in a shiur available on the YU Torah website given by Rabbi Shalom Rosner (formerly of the Island shul in Cedarhurst, and now of Beit Shemesh), and Rav Hirsch's own explanation of the meaning of the term "baruch" earlier in sefer Devarim.

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Appreciating Torah Scholarship

I always wonder whether people fully appreciate the extraordinary depth of Torah scholarship of leading rishonim and acharonim (up until our own time) in terms of having literally the entire breadth and scope of Torah literature - tanach, mishna, gemara, etc. - at their fingertips, with an ability to call upon this knowledge in addressing any sugya or shailah. IMHO, such realization is necessary to imbue the rest of us with a sense of humility whenever we learn Torah.

An insight into the mitzvah of bikkurim (first fruits) discussed in this week's parsha - Ki Savo - brought down in the sefer Parperaot Latora (by Menachem Baker) - provides a glimpse of the Torah brilliance of the Vilna Gaon.

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