The translation of the title of this week’s portion is “judges”, which is the first commandment mentioned this week, i.e. the commandment to establish judges. This commandment includes the warnings against crooked judgment. Immediately after this commandment, we find a few commandments relating to idolatry (not to plant an ashera — a tree associated with idolatrous practices — not to build a private altar, and to apply the death penalty for idol worship).
What is the connection between having honest judges and exhorting the Jewish people not to be involved in any way with idolatry?
We often hear people voice the refrain, “Isn’t it enough to be a good person? Why do I have to believe in G-d?” The juxtaposition between ethical judges, the bedrock of any moral society, and the rejection of idolatry, teaches us that one becomes a good person precisely because of a belief in G-d.
The second commandment regarding idolatry is the law that forbids us from making private altars. “And you shall not erect for yourselves a pillar which G-d hates” (Deut. Ch.16 V.22).
This is an unusual commandment because we find that in the times of our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yacov, the setting up of private altars was beloved in the eyes of G-d. Why now is it forbidden?
Many of the commentators explain that the reason for this is that this practice became synonymous with idolatry. Therefore G-d forbade it.
There is a similar underlying reason for this prohibition. When was this practice beloved by G-d? The practice was beloved by G-d in the time of the forefathers, when there were families who walked in the way of G-d, but who were not yet a nation. When the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai, they did so as a group. The central idea of idolatry is focused on how an individual can satisfy his own needs. The central idea of Judaism is how, through performing the will of G-d, we can improve the world.
So the idea of a central altar, located in the temple — the place where people from all over congregate to feel G-d’s presence — is the idea of unity, and of a nation rising together to improve the world. And the idea of a private altar, specifically after there has already been a group acceptance of the word of G-d, is focused on the selfish approach, the approach of what can I gain, as opposed to what can we do together.
May we always be focused on Judaism’s ultimate goal: to raise ourselves up as a nation worthy of improving the world.