Do Not Make Yourself a Pesel, Lest Torah Become an Idol

Va-et'chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11

D'Var Torah By: Shira Milgrom

In the next parashah, Moses will tell the Israelite people: "Thereupon the Eternal One said to me, 'Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.' . . . . After inscribing on the tablets the same text as on the first—the Ten Commandments that the Eternal addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly—the Eternal gave them to me" (Deuteronomy 10:1-4).

Our parashah, Va-et'chanan, contains this second text of the Ten Commandments. One would expect a perfect replica of the first set, an exact repetition, as Moses and God both promise. It is startling and wonderful to see that the texts are not identical. Traditional commentary,1 encoded in L'cha Dodi, tells us that both versions of the commandment to observe the Shabbat are uttered in the same instant by God (shamor v'zachor b'dibur echad); the single Divine word shatters into countless sparks as when a hammer strikes the anvil. Biblical criticism 2 teaches that the (edited) text we have before us is made up of different versions of our sacred narratives. Either way, the Torah pushes back against the notion that there could ever be a singular version of Divine truth. Divine truth is always beyond human grasp; the pure light of the Divine is necessarily refracted by human experience into countless colors.

Were we to imagine that God's truth could be concretized into any form—two tablets, a Torah scroll, a dogma, or text—that would be idolatry.3 It would trivialize Divine wisdom and limit God's infinite Presence to the specific letters we see in front of us. In that spirit of "pushing back against singular truth," this week I would like to share a few challenging, sometimes playful, always important insights from the Chasidic anthology, Iturei Torah.3 The translations are mine as are any mistakes. These commentaries are drawn from both the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Ten Commandments.

V'zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b'nei Yisrael, " This is the Teaching that Moses set before the Israelites" (Deuteronomy 4:44). When we lift the sefer Torah after the Torah reading, it is our custom to recite this verse and to add: al pi Adonai b'yad Moshe, "from the mouth of God through the hand of Moses." This is astonishing, because these two verses were combined from two stories that have nothing to do with each other . . . (R. Baruch Epstein)

"I stood before the Eternal and you at that time to convey the Eternal's words to you, for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain" (Deuteronomy 5:5).  The "I" of a person, this is the cause of the separation between a person and his Creator. As long as we are thinking about the "I," it is difficult to get closer to holiness. (Sifrei Chasidim)

"Do not make for yourself an idol (pesel)" (Exodus 20:4). Don't make yourself into someone who invalidates (posel) the ideas of others. Do not separate yourself from the community nor distance yourself from its burdens and needs. (R. Aharon of Karlin)

"Do not use the name of God for falsehood" (Exodus 20:7). Do not attach God's name to things that are false and lies. Do not put the stamp of holiness on things that are completely invalid, that may look like mitzvot but are instead serious sins. It is the way of the yetzer (evil impulse) to deceive human beings, to paint a picture of righteousness that really is dreadful sin. And that is why the world was shocked when God stated, "Do not use the name of God for falsehood," for indeed the most serious crimes and sins and all the horrible and cruel murders are committed with the veil of truth, uprightness, and justice. (R. Reuven Katz)

"You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13). Here tirtzach is written with the vowel patach; in Deuteronomy, it is written with a kamatz. This is to teach that there are two kinds of murder: the physical one—and the one about which our Sages spoke (Talmud, Bava Metzia 58): "Whoever whitens (humiliates) the face of another in public as if spilled his blood." (R. Noah Mindes)

"You shall love" (Deuteronomy 6:5). This phrase occurs three times in the entire Tanach (Jewish Bible): "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18), "you shall love him as yourself," (Leviticus 19:34) and "you shall love the Eternal" [here]. Even though we have the principal that "there is no early or late in the Torah," there is a hint here nonetheless. The reason that the Torah commands the love of people before the love of God is to teach us that it is not possible to achieve love of God except through loving human beings. And this is what the Ari (Isaac Luria) taught: "Before praying, a person should take upon oneself the mitzvah/commandment of loving one's neighbor as oneself—to love each and every one." (Ben Yair HaCohen)

"And these words which I command you shall be upon your heart" (Deuteronomy 6:6). Why not in the heart? The Kotzker Rebbe taught: "Sometimes these words lie upon your heart like a stone. And when the heart opens, in a special moment, they will enter it." Most of the time our hearts are closed and things don't enter it. But this is no reason to slacken from or forsake the worship of God. Let these things lie upon your heart, on the outside, like a stone. And some day, in a moment of awakening, when your heart opens (Rabbi Milgrom: heartbreak?), these words will enter into it and be inside. (Shem MiShmuel)

These commentaries play at the edge between reverence and rebellion: they know and treasure each word; at the same time, no single word, no single interpretation can ever capture the whole. Torah should never become a static idol. In the ever-expanding universe of Torah, each glimpse of Divine wisdom gives birth to infinitely more.

  1. See Ramban on Exodus 20:8, also see M'chilta

  2. See W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005), p. 469

  3. Lo ta-aseh lecha pesel, "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image" (Exodus 20:4, Deuteronomy 5:8)

  4. These selections can be found in the Hebrew language edition, Iturei Torah, vols. 1-7, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, copyright, Y. Orenstein, 1995)

Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami and is part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis in White Plains, New York. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.

The Living Torah

Daver Acher By: Batsheva H. Meiri

Further building on the idea that within Torah and its seeming inconsistencies lie the many refractions of Divine truth, and the suggestion by Rabbi Milgrom that one can make an idol of Torah by limiting its dimensions to the letters on a page, I offer Arthur Green's teaching on the blessing said after one is called for an aliyah when the Torah is read publicly in a synagogue:

The Torah, given once to the ancients, can only become Torah of the truth (torat emet) when each reader takes the eternal life [ chayyei olam] implanted with us and uses it to reread Torah in a way that speaks to his or her own life. We make Torah come to life. Only then may we say that God is "giving" the Torah [noteyn hatorah], in the present moment, not only in the past. God resides not only behind the text as guarantor of its infinite elasticity but also within us, in the innermost chambers (nequdah penimit) of our endless creativity. We, through the living divine presence within us, make the text come alive. The text is a way into our deepest selves, a tool for examining our inner lives." (Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Judaism [New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010], p. 117)

Not only might we take care not to make an idol out of Torah by limiting its meanings to literal understandings, but Green also invites us to understand that we are vessels that witness to the Torah's truth when we allow it to penetrate our hearts/minds and shine its light through our own experiences and intellect. To find personal meaning in Torah is to extend its eternality and to make true the notion that God did not only give Torah to our ancestors at Mount Sinai centuries ago, but gives Torah, generation after generation, in every age.

Rabbi Batsheva H. Meiri serves as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hatephila in the Blue Ridge mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. She lives there with her husband Mark and children, Noa and Gabriel.

Reference Materials

Va-et'chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,333-1,378; Revised Edition, pp. 1,184-1,221;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,063-1,088

Originally published: