July 30, 2015
In his commentary on this weeks sedra, the Netziv discusses the Bamah , local altar , which was to become forbidden once the Temple in Jerusalem was built. ( see Zevachim 112b)
What was its role? How was it supposed to keep the Jewish people away from idolatry?
“Hashem became angry with me because of your deeds, and He swore that I would not cross the Yarden and not come to the good Land…”
Avodah zarah’s popularity was like the weather. It changed a good deal. It had its highs and its low. It enjoyed great periods of popularity during the first Temple period.
Looking at the record we find in Nach, we are puzzled. We can discern that avodah zarah took hold of the people precisely during the times that the Temple was on a higher level of kedushah than at other times! Thus we find descriptions of Michah’s idol during the days of Shiloh, and the worst flirtations with foreign gods during the time that Shlomo’s Temple stood. Avodah zarah did not do as well when the mikdosh was in Gilgal, Nov, and Giv’on, all of which were further removed in level from the model mikdosh that would be built by Shlomo. This seems counterintuitive.
Every good idea can go bad, and turn truth into an ugly caricature of itself. So it was with the avodah of korbanos. The Bnei Yisrael took to korbanos, because they understood that parnasah depended on the quality of avodah. This led to a cheapening of the avodah, whereby people placed too much emphasis on the reward for the mitzvah at the expense of its core values. They looked to korbanos almost as a magic formula to get what they wanted, ignoring what korbanos were supposed to do to the inner person.
(Many others had more noble interests – they understood the role of korbanos in achieving higher levels of ahavas Hashem. Ironically, this longing for closeness to Hashem was so intense, that it led people, at times, to pursue spiritual elevations in ways that the Torah forbad!)
This urge to offer sacrifices to G-d explains the recurring problem the Jewish people had with illicit bamos. These bamos, essentially private altars, were permissible at points in time, but became forbidden when there was a central mikdosh built to certain specifications. Shlomo stands accused of bringing offerings on these bamos; Chazal explain this as a harsh way of stating that he delayed building the beis ha-mikdosh for some four years. The psukim indicate that he delayed because he was reluctant to usher in a period of time when bamos would be forbidden.
This artificial promotion of korbanos was so compelling to people, that when they were not permitted to use bamos, and travelling to Shiloh or to Shlomo’s beis ha-mikdosh in Yerushalayim was too difficult, they took matters into their own hands. Some redirected their offerings to avodah zarah; others simply ignored the prohibition against bamos and used them nonetheless.
(This was especially each year at the time of Sukkos, when people looked for Heavenly assistance in bringing the rains that would support the next growing season.)
Even righteous kings like Yehoshafat and Asa were unable, try as they did, to uproot the bamos. The people’s objectivity was clouded by the promise of an easy segulah for parnasah. They convinced themselves that using them was not an aveirah, but a great mitzvah!
The single exception was Chizkiyah, who inspired a Torah revolution in his day. As Chazal put it, he planted a sword in the beis medrash and decreed that whoever failed to involve himself with Torah would be put to the sword. Intense involvement with Torah study brings the same blessing of parnasah. It also nurtures ahavas Hashem. In a learning environment, people did not need korbanos other than the ones specified by the Torah as communal and individual responsibilities. They no longer sought out bamos upon which to display their religious devotion. They certainly had no need to turn part of their religious fervor to Hashem’s “subordinates,” like the sun.
The purpose of our pasuk is now abundantly clear. Before exhorting his people at length to distance themselves from avodah zarah, Moshe provides context. “Because of your aveiros,” says Moshe, “Hashem was angered against me. He determined not to let me cross into the Land. Had I been permitted to lead you there, I would have planted Torah study so firmly within you, that it is quite possible that you would never be attracted to avodah zarah. You would have no need to look for quick-fix answers for your parnasah needs, as the merit of Torah would sustain you.”