The Impostor Painter

One of the most egregious sins the Torah records is the act of idol worship; lending credence to ‘powers’ other than Hashem. For this reason, the prohibition is mentioned many times throughout the Torah, and in a variety of ways. One verse in this week’s Parsha, in particular, seems like one of those many examples, but with a twist: “Be careful, lest you forget the covenant you made with Hashem, your G-d, and make for yourself an idol, a image of any kind, that Hashem, your G-d, instructed you” (4:23). 

 

At first glance, it seems to be another provision against idol-worship, but there are two peculiarities. First, why does it preface the warning by saying “Be careful, lest you forget…”? Why not simply say ‘Do not make an idol’, like the Torah has many times before? And second, it sounds as if the end of the verse says that Gd instructed us to make an idol! Rashi, in fact, feels the need to dissuade us from this interpretation by commenting: “That He instructed you not to do“. While, of course, this is the simple explanation of the verse, why would it be written in a way that could be understood otherwise? The verse itself should say “That Hashem instructed you not to do”!

 

Perhaps the verse is purposefully written in these ways to provide an additional level of meaning. Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, one of the most pivotal Chassidic leaders of 19th-century Poland, explained this verse as a reference to mitzvah observance, not only as a violation of idol worship. To him, the verse can be read it as follows: ‘A person must be very careful to not break the covenant (relationship) with Hashem, and make for themselves a picture of that which Hashem instructed you’. In other words, if one doesn’t stay connected to Hashem, then one’s mitzvot become like “a picture”. We may still go through the motions, but in essence, they’re really only facades; painting a picture of piety, but with no true substance or sincerity. “To make a picture of that which Hashem instructed you”, however, is not a formal prohibition either, as the Talmud itself encourages us: “Through doing mitzvot insincerely, one will ultimately do them sincerely” (23b). For this reason, the verse isn’t phrased as a strict prohibition, either.

 

As we ween ourselves away from mourning the destruction of the Temple, we appreciate the danger of insincerity even more (as last week’s Haftara recalled regarding the sacrifices- see Yishaya 1:13). On this ‘Shabbos Nachamu’, and the start of a seven week process of ‘consolation’ leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we begin to rebuild; not only our mitzvah observance, but in the relationship which they’re meant to represent. We continue to paint with our mitzvot, only this time, we hope the portrait is accurate.