At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, after the revelation of the aseret hadibrot, the ten statements, Moses reports God’s words to Israel. Almost the very last verses of this parshah, (19) “God says to Moses, Tell the children of Israel….”
“You shall not make with Me gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves. 21 An altar of earth shall you make for Me…”
The prohibition is straightforward; don’t make idols out of silver and gold. But why does the verse say, “Don’t make images with Me?” The sages puzzled over this construction. They suggested a number of possibilities. Primarily, they understood this verse as prohibiting making the likeness of anything in the heavens, or of angels, or of those implements which were used in the Temple for the service: ‘Ye shall not make the likeness of my attendants’?
But then, why “gods of silver and gods of gold?” the Talmud in Sanhedrin 7b asks that very question “…Ye shall not make with Me gods of silver or gods of gold. Is it only gods of silver and gold that may not be made, while those of wood are permitted? — The verse, says Rav Ashi, refers to judges appointed through the power of silver or gold.”
The talmud suggests that the verse is targeting not simple idolatry, but a more virulent form; today we would hardly worry about someone making idols to bow down to, and yet, our world is full of gods of silver and gods of gold. People made small gods to worship, because by bringing idols things – food, or other sacrifices, - they could get what they wanted, they could manipulate the gods by making them happy, and through them manipulate the world
The Mei Ha Shiloach suggests something else. He says, “Gods of silver” means an external hue of love and fervor more than is appropriate …for the blessed God only shows love for a person when the truth is with him. “Gods of gold” means an external hue of fear greater than is appropriate.
When Jews speak of appropriate ways to regard God, there are two phrases that we commonly use, “Yirat shamayim” fear of heaven, and “ahavat hashem” love of God. Fear and love. A person needs both of these to have a relationship with God: awe for the transcendent God who creates the world, who commands the laws of nature and sets the planets in motion, to whom we are tiny parts of an immense cosmos; love for the God who is immanent, whose providence regards us, who dwells among Israel and loves nations and individuals.
When we make gods of silver and gods of gold, we elevate one way of relating to God above another, or even falsely act based not on our hearts, but on the gold and silver plating: what we think people will respond to.
When we make a god of gold, we elevate fear of heaven, or even just the appearance of the fear of heaven, above love of God. “Gods of gold,” are focusing on the minutia of ritual so much that it seems burdensome and beyond our ability. The other way of making “gods of gold” is sending heaven away from us, and turning God into a distant God who doesn’t care, at best a God who is not interested in our personal welfare, but only in the cosmos. To this, Deuteronomy/dvarim 30 tells us “12. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? 13. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? 14. But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.”
On the other hand, when we make gods of silver, we elevate love of God above fear of God. This is something I think we are particularly prone to today. We overemphasize the elements of our tradition that tell us that we are God’s partner, and forget that God isn’t our friend or our pet. Of course God does love us, but it is not a human love. God cares for us, but we still owe God our service, and our awe. We’re not on a first name basis with God. God still goes with the old-fashioned placement of titles: Sir/Ma’am, Adonai.
Gos of silver and gods of gold are plating. They are the things that cover over the truth. They confuse us as to what’s beneath them: When we act overawed so that we make a fetish of behavior without matching it to our thoughts, we gild ourselves with falsehood, when we act overly familiar with God, thinking we can do as we please in the world, we plate over the truth that we aren’t as important as we like to think we are. We have an obligation to submit ourselves to something higher than ourselves.
Rather, says the Mei HaShiloach, “only ‘an altar of earth you shall make for Me.’ Here, “earth” means simplicity, just as it exists in your heart.” God, unlike false idols, doesn’t ever have us hide the truth. We are to keep an honest account of ourselves. Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke told his disciples: Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words:"Bishvili nivra ha'olam. For my sake was the world created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words:" Ani eifer v'afar; I am but dust and ashes."
God created us to have both fear of heaven and love of hashem. But we aren’t supposed to make idols of fear and love. They must be in balance with one another, because both are part of the truth of our existence. I am but dust and ashes, and for my sake, the world was created. May we serve God this week, with humility and submission, with joy and pride.