Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 24 June 2006 / 28 Sivan 5766

Forgoing the Fiery Lion

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Scott in Portland, OR

Dear Rabbi,

I was told that Jews in biblical times were steeped in idol worship and that this was one of the reasons that the Temple was destroyed. I don’t understand how Jews who had the guidance of the Torah and rabbis were involved in such nonsense. Would you please explain?

Dear Scott,

Rav Ashi of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) once spoke disparagingly of the wicked king Menasha of Biblical times in a public lecture. That night, Menasha appeared to him in a dream and remonstrated him for criticizing him when he didn’t even know Torah ideas that were basic in Menasha’s times. The holy rabbi asked him that if his generation was so learned, why did they practice idolatry? Menasha replied that if the rabbi were living in his times, he’d lift his robe over his knees and run to worship idols. If this is so regarding the holy rabbi and his learned generation, all the more so should this apply to us. If so, why don’t we have a drive for idolatry? What changed?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) relates how the Sages in the times of the Prophet Zechariah beseeched G-d to nullify the inclination for forbidden worship. They cried, “The Temple has been destroyed, the righteous have been murdered, the Jews have been expelled and Satan still dances among us. The only reason You created the evil inclination was for us to overcome it and receive reward. We no longer want the inclination nor its reward.” At that point, a fiery lion leaped out of the place of the Holy of Holies. Seeing that their request had been granted, the Sages then prayed to nullify the inclination for immorality. However, afterward not even chickens would lay eggs and they had to have the urge restored.

This teaching illustrates two very important ideas:

First, what does the nullification of the drive for forbidden worship have to do with a fiery lion leaping out of the Holy of Holies, the center of pure spirituality? The answer is that in its most basic form, spirituality is one drive that can be expressed either through holiness or impurity. Dissipating the desire for forbidden worship necessarily dissipates the drive for spirituality in general. We may no longer feel the desire for idolatry that they felt, but we have no idea of what intense spirituality they experienced either. For this reason, from the time the fiery lion was sent from the Holy of Holies, prophecy terminated from Israel.

Second, what does the nullification of the desire for idolatry have to do with the nullification of the drive for immorality? The answer is that idolatry and adultery [the prototype of immorality] go hand in hand. Idolatry is infidelity vis-a-vis the Divine; adultery is unfaithfulness to one’s spouse. For this reason, these prohibitions parallel each other on each side of the tablets (Commandments 2 and 6). Similarly, in order to snare the Israelites with idolatry, the Midianites enticed the Jewish men with immorality. In their excitement, the Jews were told, “If you want this, bow down to that!” The fact that these two drives are juxtaposed might also offer us a glimpse into just how consuming the lust for forbidden worship really was. Although it is hard for us living “post-fiery lion” to imagine the drive for idolatry, we can certainly relate to a person being overcome by its counterpart in immorality, despite the recognition that it is wrong. Perhaps “pre-fiery lion”, the drive for spirituality was so great that people often succumbed to their desire for immediate, but inappropriate, spiritual gratification despite their knowing it was wrong.

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