Why is idol worship so bad? Why is worshipping the god of the sun, moon, or rain so insidious that it merits capital punishment?
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch implicitly answers this question in numerous places by explaining that ancient idol worshippers were timid spirits. A part of them always cowered in fear for they regarded themselves as plaything of capricious gods. The future was thus ever unpredictable.
The G-d of the Bible is rational and just. Not so the pagan gods of ancient times. They resembled the human beings they allegedly governed. They could become jealous, angry, greedy, moody etc. To appease them – to “get on their good side” – one would offer them sacrifices – even one’s own child if necessary.
Torah Jews had no need to resort to such abominable practices. They knew what the future held. They understood that the world is governed by a single mind who laid down a set of moral rules with predictable consequences. Thus, they had nothing to fear. In Rav Hirsch’s words: Belief in Hashem “raises [people] above all other powers between heaven and earth and frees them from all fear and degrading demoralizing trembling before all real and imaginary forces that threaten their well-being and prosperity.”
“Lo se’arum avoseichem” states the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:17). Our “forefathers dreaded not” demons and other such forces. They believed in the creator of the heavens and earth and knew that if they obeyed His will, all would be well.
With belief in Hashem, man can achieve “a higher state of existence and life, of strength and happiness, of immortality and eternity.” Without it, though, “the world sinks from [man] into a night filled with real and imagined spectres and ghosts…in which he has only to go through the fight with inimical demons for luck and existence.”
In short, man cannot be “all he can be” (to borrow words from the U.S. Army slogan) without belief in the one G-d of the moral and physical universe. And that’s why avodah zarah is perfidious. It prevents man from emerging from primitive childlike fear and living up to his divine potential.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch(1808-1888) – head of the Jewish community in Frankfurt, Germany for over 35 years – was a prolific writer whose ideas, passion, and brilliance helped save German Jewry from the onslaught of modernity.
Elliot Resnick, PhD, is the host of “The Elliot Resnick Show” and the editor of an upcoming work on etymological explanations in Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Chumash.