It doesn't take much intelligence to understand why G-d forbade the worship of idols (or of any other individual or force in nature). For one thing, they are silly pieces of wood and metal, stars, mountains, trees, or human kings. They don't have any supernatural powers that will help anyway. Since the Torah forbade stupidity, keeping away from idolatry will keep you away from a pretty concentrated form of stupidity. For another thing, idolatry is a distraction from our real purpose in life, which is to serve G-d.
What should bother us, though, is how could anyone fall for such stuff in the first place? How could great segments of the world's population and a good part of the Jewish nation (from time to time) take up just this stupidity of idolatry?
In order to avoid this difficult issue we'll discuss something else. Maybe by the time we're finished the original question will be forgotten... or maybe this will lead us to the answer.
G-d wants all of His creations to do nothing more and nothing less than His will. G-d created human beings so they can do his will, but He added a twist. They must do it out of their own free choice. Whatever G-d gets out of having us serve him, He gets more out of it if it's voluntary, rather than robotic.
If G-d were to speak to you today in a booming voice, with thunder and lightning and a clear, heart-stopping vision of the place that awaits sinners, you'd probably do what He said, right? But would it have been out of free will? Not really. You would more or less have been bullied into serving Him just as if someone were holding a gun to your head and threaten to use it unless...
If everything were as clear and immediate to us as that hypothetical vision, all of our Mitzvah (commandments) observance would be robotic and automatic. That would not meet G-d's "needs." In order for the world to accomplish its purpose, the truth has to be a bit foggy, there has to be at least the appearance of alternatives.
That brings us back to idolatry. If there was nothing in the world to serve besides G-d, then it wouldn't be much of a challenge. Therefore, G-d made it a fair fight (in effect gaving us free choice) by making idolatry attractive. G-d gave it at least the illusion of power. There really might have been some supernatural power to idolatry - it really might have brought success and wealth and other good things. In a word: it idalotry look stupid and it might not even have been stupid. But it was, nevertheless, wrong.
Perhaps idolatry isn't the challenge to belief today as it once was, but the free will to decide between right and wrong is still very present and very powerful.
Rabbi Boruch Clinton teaches at the Ottawa Torah Institute yeshiva high
school and Machon Sarah high school for girls (both in Ottawa, Canada).
You may reach him with comments and questions at
You can now read some of Rabbi Clinton's essays on Torah life at
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