The Futility of Idolatry

Rabbi Bernie Fox

“And I will destroy your idols and your sun gods. I will let your corpses rot on the remains of your idols. I will grow tired of you” (Sefer VaYikra 26:30). 

This parasha vividly portrays the curses that the nation will face if it strays from the path of the Torah. The Torah presents a stark scenario – the severe curses that will befall Bnai Yisrael if they embrace the heathen practices and pagan worship of the surrounding nations. 

The above pasuk is part of this chilling description. But here's the puzzle: the passage prophesies the destruction of the pagan idols worshipped by the people. This doesn't seem like a curse at all! So why is it included among the curses? 

Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach – Chizkuni – explains that this passage is not part of the curse. However, he does not explain the actual intent of the pasuk and the reason for its inclusion within the narrative of the curses.[1] 

Ralbag – Gershonides – offers a brilliant response. To understand his comments, we must consider the message of these curses. Superficially, Hashem is encouraging us to be faithful to the Torah with a “carrot and stick” message. If we observe the mitzvot, we will be blessed. We will receive the carrot. But if we abandon the Torah, we will receive the stick – the curses. Understood in this simplistic way, the destruction of idols should not be included in the curses. If we think more deeply about these blessings and curses, it is clear that they are more than a “carrot and stick.” 

Why do people sin? 

Why abandon the Torah? 

Why adopt idolatry? 

The answer is two-fold. First, the idolator believes this is a real option. They think that they have a choice. They can reject the Torah’s commandment not to serve pagan gods, and instead choose to worship them. Second, they believe that their choice is the better option. In other words, they will benefit from serving these gods.

Ralbag's interpretation sheds a new light on these curses. They are not just a punitive measure against the sinner, but also a profound message. They serve to highlight the folly and futility of the idolator's behavior, offering a path to enlightenment. The idolator believed they had a choice. They could ignore Hashem’s commandments to worship only Him and instead worship pagan gods, create idols, and pagan temples. Hashem responds through these curses that this thinking is flawed. He will not allow us to fill the land with idols and pagan temples. We can freely reject these and not let them in our land. However, if we do not make this choice and create idols and temples, then we will be invaded, and our enemies will destroy our idols and pagan temples. Our choice is not between having these idols and temples or not having them. We choose between freely rejecting them or experiencing their destruction through conquest and devastation. 

The idolator looks to their god for protection. This is futile. When our enemies invade our country and slay our people, their bodies will be strewn at the feet of the idols they look to for protection. In short, the message of these curses is not only that there are terrible consequences for rejecting the Torah. The deeper message is that the thinking underlying the choice to serve pagan gods is flawed. Also, there will be no benefit. Serving the gods will be futile. In the context of this more profound understanding of the curses, the destruction of the idols and temples is relevant and an integral part of the curses.[2]

[1] Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Vakikra, 26:30. 

[2] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), p 389.