Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Shoftim - 5772
CONSEQUENCE OF IDOLATRY
Throughout the book of Devarim, Moshe tells the Israelites in the name of Hashem regarding their conquest of the Holy Land, “You shall let nothing that breathes remain alive.” On the surface, what Hashem commands the children of Israel to do, as they conquer the land of Canaan, is nothing less than genocide. The obvious question is: How can the Hashem that commands concern and responsibility for all humans turn around and demand the annihilation of a nation? However, to understand this and other similar commandments we must understand the culture and lack of morals of the dwellers of the land of Canaan.
Earlier in Devarim Moshe warned the Israelites regarding the immorality of the dwellers of Canaan that “they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their Hashems.(12: 28-31)
The negative outlook the Torah has on idolatry and consequently on people that live for the sake of idolatry is not because of the philosophical mistake but rather its repugnant way of life. As Levinas pointed out, “idolatry is fought not on account of its errors, but on account of the moral degeneracy that accompanies it.” The actions perpetrated by these nations in not just destructive to the children of Israel but rather to humanity. Judaism that teaches, “Man is dear because he is created in the image of Hashem” (Misnah Avot 3:14), cannot allow a message of degeneracy to come forth from the land of education. The Israelites must fight paganism for the survival of their message concerning the sanctity of the human being and our ethical obligations to one another. If the message does not endure it is not just a loss for the Israelites but rather for all dwellers of the planet.
Although clearing the promised land of idolatry was a priority for the Children of Israel, killing was not the first option. Before the crossing of the Jordan River, Joshua sent notices to the dwellers of the land and provided for them a list of options which included abandoning their pagan practices or leaving the land. The killing was only a last resort due to the significance of humanity as a whole. Since the land was to become an educational center for humanity, the corruption of the idolaters needed to be uprooted.