The Bible Says What? God commands we build idols!

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The Bible Says What? God commands we build idols!

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers takes a controversial topic from Jewish texts and looks at a Reform response

Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)
Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)

We all know we aren’t meant to build idols. So it can be confusing to see Aaron assisting the Israelites in building a golden calf, cherubim adorning the ark in the Mishkan, and, in parashat Chukkat, the erection of a giant copper snake. 

The giant snake follows on from an unfortunate reoccurrence of
Israelite moaning. They are beset by a plague of burning snakes until they relent and beg Moses to ask God to make it stop. Which he does. The burning snakes are replaced by a giant statue of a copper snake, at which everyone is instructed to look up. On doing so, those who have been bitten are healed. It seems like a very short jump from this to idolatry! 

But it was God who commanded the building of the snake. Why would God command the Israelites to build an idol of an animal?

Ever since the Garden of Eden, the snake has been associated with the yetzer ha’ra – the evil inclination. The yetzer ha’ra can lead us down the wrong path, or it can be the small voice in our head causing self-doubt and an inability to complete anything. 

This kind of inner saboteur can be soul-destroying and crushing and can create a huge distance between us and those around us, and between us and God. 

The yetzer ha’ra that caused the Israelites to grumble and moan may have been as much about their own self-doubt and fear, which in turn created a spiritual black hole.

By building a giant version of their yetzer ha’ra in their midst, they were not only reminding themselves of where they went wrong, but they are being asked to face their fears head-on – which is sometimes the only way to deal with fear.

  •  Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers serves Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue

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