Posted on March 23, 2011
by Sylvie Grossbard
According to tradition, the Torah enumerates six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, or commandments, none more recognized than the “Ten Commandments” (or, more accurately, “Ten Utterances”) listed in this week’s Parashat Yitro. With so many mitzvot, which were given so long ago, it is only natural that many of them would not be applicable today. We see this often in the various laws concerning sacrifices and worship in the Mishkan and the Beit Ha’Mikdash. But in this week’s parashah, with its ten essential commandments that continue to shape both our religious and secular lives, how can we account for a law that seems not to apply anymore?
The second mitzvah in Aseret Ha’Dibrot commands that “You shall have no other gods before Me.” In our modern society, idolatry as we usually recognize it is a rare phenomenon. Most of the world’s major religions follow basic precepts of monotheism, and while philosophers certainly argue over whether various elements of other religions actually qualify as a distinct belief in one God, it is true that we almost never witness our peers bowing down to stone sculptures. In her New Studies in Shemot, Nechama Leibowitz identifies a problem the second mitzvah raises in our world: “We read in a number of our ancient sources that the ghost of idolatry was laid once and for all, by our ancestors, and that the sin of worshipping sticks and stones has, long ago, ceased to figure in the temptations to which we are subject. Is it conceivable that the second commandment of the Decalogue should have ceased to be applicable? Does it bear no message today?”
Various commentators over the years have offered a solution to this problem by proposing an alternate definition of idolatry: the accumulation of excessive wealth. However, these commentators do not suppose that the Torah outlaws all acquisition of property, because certainly many of the important figures in the Torah were exceedingly wealthy, and the Torah even lists laws pertaining to the protection of wealth. Rather, they address the idea that, in Leibowitz’s words, “idolatry may be defined as the transformation of means, even perfectly legitimate ones, into ends themselves.” In other words, possessing wealth itself is perfectly fine. It is in worshipping our physical possessions and devoting all our strength to the pursuit of these possessions that our transgression of the mitzvah comes into play.
Thus, the second mitzvah is very much relevant in our everyday lives. As teenagers in North America, we are constantly immersed in a consumerist culture. We are devoted to making money, saving money, and then using our money to buy all the things we see advertised on television, in magazines, and in the labels on our friends’ clothes. This more contemporary interpretation of the mitzvah reminds us that accumulating these possessions is not inherently wrong, and that in order to be good people, we do not need to wear paper bags and live in cardboard boxes. However, it is important that we remember that these possessions are simply objects that we can use to help us in our worship of God by reminding us of how lucky we have been to acquire so many things and not, as our culture might make us think, the gods to whom we should bow and give thanks.