The Ten Principles for America
The Second Commandment
In the series of the Ten Commandments we have dealt with the misunderstanding that is driven from the poor translation of the Hebrew word commandments “Dibrot”, which when literally translated means the sayings (principles). In this article we will discuss the second principle. “You shall not recognize the gods of others in my presence. You shall not make yourself a curved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them for I am your God – Jealous God, who visited the theme of fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations, for my enemies; but who shows kindness for thousands (of generations) to those who love Me and observe My commandments”. This principle points out three separate negative injunctions. (1) it is forbidden to believe in idols, (2) it is forbidden to make or possess them and (3) it is forbidden to worship them in my presence. Since God is eternal those prohibitions are permanent. As a comparison, to defy or oppose a human King in his presence is the worst form of treason, and since God is omnipotent, idolatry is a sin not to be forgiven.
The Sages were able to trace idolatry from early on in history, when it was clear to all humans that there was a Creator. It was at this early time in history that people began to feel that by showing respect and admiration to the intermediaries through which God controls the universe; they were bestowing and displaying reverence to Him. It equates to the respect that one would show to a king’s messenger, minister or emissaries. In time, as shown throughout history many began to believe that these forces had independent powers, and came to worship them as gods. Firstly they worshipped angels, which of course are heavenly, spiritual beings. At later point, worship spread to the heavenly bodies and even to humans of great abilities; for example Pharaoh in Egypt and Nebuchadnezzar. Those who worshipped them felt that by doing so it would increase the power within the heavenly force or king that guided their destinies. Later this sort of worshipping practice passed over to demons, evil powers and non-spiritual beings. The prohibition in this verse applies to all beings, in any form that can conceivably be worshipped. The commandment prohibits not only worshipping but as well as the manufacturing of such idols in all and any dimensions.
The verse attributes to God a Jealous trait, the expression jealous is being mentioned elsewhere in the Bible only in reference to adultery and to a suspicious husband’s claim that his wife was unfaithful (Numbers 5:14). Jealousy is mentioned in reference to the abuse of trust and to someone’s refusal to give up something that is rightfully his. In this case of idolatry, God alone is entitled to be worshipped by human beings and He will not share this with any other beings. But as God said, in other matters I am gracious and merciful; likewise, a jealous husband who claims that his wife has committed adultery, the husband refuses to relinquish the faithfulness which he is entitled to.
The sin of fathers upon children perhaps is the most difficult thing to grasp in this commandment; how can children be punished for sins that they did not commit? The Sages explain that the children in fact, are only being punished if they carry on the sinful legacy of the parents. Throughout history we see cases when sins are repeated over the course of generations and become a lifestyle of their own. So, children who consciously accept and continue the sinful lifestyle of their parents actually add sin that then become a part of their culture. This leads to even greater reason for punishment.
The commandment ends with an acknowledgement that even though sins do exist, God’s punishment will not carry on beyond the forth generation. Moreover, the next verse states that God shows kindness for thousands of generations, which applies to at least 2000 generations into the future. Therefore the reward for good deeds is 500 times greater then a punishment for sin.