The Torah names all 42 encampments of Bnei Yisrael on their 40-year journey from the Exodus until the crossing of the Jordan River into Eretz Yisrael. G-d commands Bnei Yisrael to drive out the Canaanites from Eretz Yisrael and to demolish every vestige of their idolatry. Bnei Yisrael are warned that if they fail to rid the land completely of the Canaanites, those who remain will be "pins in their eyes and thorns in their sides." The boundaries of the Land of Israel are defined, and the tribes are commanded to set aside 48 cities for the levi'im, who do not receive a regular portion in the division of the Land. Cities of refuge are to be established: Someone who murders unintentionally may flee there. The daughters of Tzelofchad marry members of their tribe so that their inheritance will stay in their own tribe. Thus ends the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers, the fourth of the Books of the Torah.
“…and on their gods, G-d had inflicted punishments.” (33:4)
Is idol worship a thing of the past?
We tend to look down on cultures that rush to bow down to over-sized dollies. It’s all a bit ridiculous to our well-manicured culture of self-empowerment. But don’t we still have idols?
Doesn’t society place the rich, the slim and the famous on pedestals and bow to them? Are the epithets “teenage idol,” “Hollywood idol,” “Rock and Roll idol,” mere hyperbole?
I’m not sure.
An idol expresses the belief that there are separate powers in creation. The belief that there may be a G-d, but He doesn’t control everything. A quick libation to the ‘wheat god’ will make sure I get a good harvest. A couple of lambs to the “sun god” will make sure the sun shines. It’s like slipping a fiver to the doorman to make sure you get a good seat. Idolatry says that I can control the world.
Nowadays, the idols enshrined by society are those individuals who seem to be a law unto themselves, who seem to be able to get away with almost anything. Once in a while they overstep the mark to the opprobrium of society and the press and they become “fallen idols” — but that’s no different than finding out that your favorite “rain god” isn’t quite up to the task.
In Parshat Bo, (Shemot 12:12) it says, “And with all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment. In our parsha, however, the Torah leaves out the word “all” and says only, “…and on their gods, G-d had inflicted punishments (33:4)”.
Rashi explains in Parshat Beshalach that G-d destroyed all the gods of Egypt save one – ba’al tzafon. This was to lure the Egyptians into relying on ba’al tzafon and plunge headlong into the sea after the Jewish People, since it was there they were destined to receive their punishment. It emerges from this that ba’al tzafon was destroyed only after the destruction of the Egyptians in the sea.
Thus it is in Parshat Bo that when G-d announces, prior to the fact that he will exact punishment on all the gods of Egypt He is referring to the entire process of the redemption, including the emergence of the Jewish People from Yam Suf. In our parsha, however, the Torah is speaking only about the events as they transpired, as it says, “And on the fifteenth day of the first month… and on their gods, G-d had inflicted punishments.” Here the Torah leaves out the word “all” because as yet the Jewish People had not crossed the sea and ba’al tzafon was still in existence.
It was for this reasons that Yitro said, after witnessing the splitting of the sea, “Now I know that G-d is the greatest of all the gods.” (Shemot 18:11)
Yitro was originally a priest of idolatry and when he saw that ba’al tzafon had survived from the night of Pesach, he started to suspect that ba’al tzafon may have some power after all.
After Yam Suf, however, he saw that nothing, not even ba’al tzafon had survived. At that point he said, “Now I know that G-d is the greatest of the gods.”
One day soon, all the modern idols will seem as powerless as ba’al tzafon, and the whole world will say, “Now I know that G-d is the greatest of the gods.”