Hearing of the miracles G-d performed for Bnei Yisrael, Moshe's father-in-law Yitro arrives with Moshe's wife and sons, reuniting the family in the wilderness. Yitro is so impressed by Moshe's detailing of the Exodus from Egypt that he converts to Judaism. Seeing that the only judicial authority for the entire Jewish nation is Moshe himself, Yitro suggests that subsidiary judges be appointed to adjudicate smaller matters, leaving Moshe free to attend to larger issues. Moshe accepts his advice. Bnei Yisrael arrive at Mt. Sinai where G-d offers them the Torah. After they accept, G-d charges Moshe to instruct the people not to approach the mountain and to prepare for three days. On the third day, amidst thunder and lightning, G-d's voice emanates from the smoke-enshrouded mountain and He speaks to the Jewish People, giving them the Ten Commandments:
- Believe in G-d
- Don't worship other "gods"
- Don't use G-d's name in vain
- Observe Shabbat
- Honor your parents
- Don't murder
- Don't commit adultery
- Don't kidnap
- Don't testify falsely
- Don't covet.
After receiving the first two commandments, the Jewish People, overwhelmed by this experience of the Divine, request that Moshe relay G-d's word to them. G-d instructs Moshe to caution the Jewish People regarding their responsibility to be faithful to the One who spoke to them.
“You shall not have other gods before
The temperature on the tarmac must be over 100°. The guard of honor in their splendid crimson uniforms stretches all the way backs to the control tower.
Air Force One begins a long lazy curve as it turns for its final approach. As the wheels bite the tarmac, the squeal of small puffs of burned rubber escape from the tires. Air Force One taxies to a halt in front of the welcoming committee. The main bulkhead swings open and out into the blistering Asian sunshine steps not the President, not even the Vice-President, but the ambassador of the .
The guard comes to attention with the precision of a well-oiled machine, and the brass band strikes up “The Star Spangled Banner.” A welcome fit for a king. If the president himself had stepped out of that plane he could have no complaints.
There is no word, no letter or no dot that is superfluous in the Torah.
Why, then, does the Torah add the words “before Me” to the end of the above verse?” Why didn’t it just write “You shall not have other gods?” Isn’t the message clear enough that idol worship is unacceptable without the words “before Me?”
At the beginning of Hilchot Avoda Zara, the Rambam (Maimonides) explains how idol worship started in the world: The ancients knew that G-d runs the world through a series of emissaries. The Divine command descends through the upper worlds until it reaches the stars and the constellations. The stars are the last link in this chain of command. In the generation of Enosh, (Adam’s grandson) people started to surmise that since G-d had created the stars and the constellations as his agents to run the world, G-d wanted the stars to be honored, because to honor them was to honor the King himself. Eventually, this mistake degenerated into the building of temples to these stars, and sacrificing to them, still with the understanding, however, that they were G-d’s envoys. The final step was to disconnect the stars from G-d completely and worship them alone as deities.
It’s clear that the final step in this process, the worshipping of the stars instead of G-d, is what we would call idol worship. However, the Rambam says that even giving honor to the constellations was already fully-fledged idol worship. This is difficult to understand. When you welcome an ambassador, shouldn’t you give him the entire honor befitting the one who sent him? For, in truth, the ambassador represents the king. What was so bad then about giving honor to the ambassadors of the King?
“You shall not have other gods before me (lit. to my face.)”
There’s one place where to honor the ambassador of the King is the biggest insult to the King that can be. Where is that?
In the throne-room of the King.
Seeing as G-d fills the world, and there is no place where He is not, the entire creation is G-d’s throne-room.
To bow to an ambassador in front of the King is as big an insult as you can get.
- Based on the Seforno