Jeremiah on Idolatry and Israel

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim & Howard Salamon

Can a man make gods for himself? But they are not gods! (Jer. 16:20)

Jeremiah critiques idol-making, exposing the idol’s need for man to create it. How then does man need and pray to that which in fact needs him? Metsudas Dovid comments:

And is it fitting that man with the work of his own hands, make a god for himself? Are not humans non-gods, so how can the work of their hands be better than they themselves?

Jeremiah continues:

You will forfeit by your own act, the inheritance (Israel) I have given you; I will make you a slave to your enemies in a land you have never known. For you have kindled the flame of My wrath which shall burn for all time (Ibid. 17:4).

The purpose of Israel is to teach the Jews’ monotheism. Placing the Jew on the world stage through Jews dwelling in one location—Israel—God wishes the world to know the truth, exemplified by Jews, who follow Torah. But when the Jews abandon God and follow idolatry, Israel no longer has a purpose and the Jews are ousted. This is the message also contained in our Shema prayer:

Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For God’s anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that God is assigning to you.

Jeremiah continues:

Thus said the Lord: Cursed is he who trusts in man, who makes mere flesh his strength, and turns his thoughts from the Lord (Ibid. 17:5).

At the core of idolatry is man’s need for man. It is our childhood, where we were dependent on parents, that we learn the feeling of authority, a superior being. If one matures intelligently, he eventually abandons his view of his parents as being superior, and recognizes that all men and women equals. Some people however remain with an infantile mindset, and when realizing their parents are equal to them, they sense a void, and they invent a replacement of their childhood authority figure  expressed in deifying Jesus, rebbes, or praying to stone and wood gods. These are all replacement figures for their parents.