The Charlie Hebdo cartoon making fun of Muhammad is nothing compared to Moshe’s attack on the Egyptian deity of his time.
God instructs Moshe to publicly slaughter large numbers of lambs, the Egyptian god. He is instructed to do so for the very purpose of mocking Egyptian beliefs in the lamb’s supernatural powers. As the Midrash (see below) says: “…so that I can make clear to them that their god is nothing.” In Va’eira (Shemot 8:22 ), sensitive to Egyptian feelings and their likely riots against the Jews, Moshe advises Pharoh to allow them to travel outside of Egypt to perform this sacrifice rather than to humiliate their god in their presence. After many requests Pharoh still refuses to allow the Jewish people to travel outside of the populated areas of Egypt to sacrifice their lambs. Finally, after the ten plagues, God instructs the Jews (12:6) to slaughter the sheep publicly, paint the blood of the sheep on their doorposts and to bring the sheep as their first Pesach sacrifice.
Even after the ten plagues, Moshe is still concerned about offending the Egyptians and their likely reprisals. In the Midrash he challenges God’s instruction to slaughter the lambs:
בשעה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה לשחוט הפסח אמר לו משה רבון העולם הדבר הזה היאך אני יכול לעשות אי אתה יודע שהצאן אלהיהן של מצרים הן שנאמר (שמות ח, כב) הן נזבח את תועבת מצרים לעיניהם ולא יסקלונו אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא חייך אין ישראל יוצאין מכאן עד שישחטו את אלהי מצרים לעיניהם שאודיע להם שאין אלהיהם כלום .שמ״ר פר׳ ט״ז, סי׳ ג׳
When Hashem told Moshe to slaughter the Pesach offering, Moshe said to Him: “Master of the universe, how can I do this that you ask, do you not know that sheep are the god of Egypt…?” Hashem replied to him: “I swear the Jewish People will not leave this place until they slaughter the god of Egypt in front of their eyes so that I can make clear to them that their god is nothing.”
He’arrot – Observations
If God’s intention is just to demonstrate the futility of Egyptian belief in the lamb as a deity, why was it necessary to use that deity as a sacrifice to Hashem? Why not conduct a mass slaughter of the lambs and not use them for our own religious service? Surely the destruction of their god for no higher reason than to demonstrate that they have no power, would be the most effective way to make the point?
The Midrash teaches us the art of demonstration and the way to oppose the nothingness of false beliefs. The way to do this is not through mockery and cynicism, nor is it to simply destroy other people’s beliefs or the objects in which they believe. Our issue with other beliefs is not their nothingness; nothingness is not worthy of opposition. Our issue is with setting any object or value higher than Hashem. What Hashem wanted of the Egyptians was that they should show ultimate subservience to the Him and none other. If idolatrous religions believed that the objects of their worship were instruments of Hashem and depictions of Him rather than gods in their own rights, we would not have an issue with them. We, the Jewish people, are not permitted to worship any depictions or instruments of Hashem, but only Hashem Himself. However Gentiles are permitted to believe in a form that is the instrument or depiction of G-d provided their belief embraces Hashem as the only ultimate G-d. This practice of worshiping an object that represents God but is not God, is known in halacha as Shituf (so-to-say, partnering another Deity with Hashem) and is permitted for gentiles provided they do not attribute Divine powers to the object, but only to Hashem. Moshe’s intention in demonstrating the futility of the Egyptian belief in the lamb, was not to mock that belief or to destroy it for its own sake, but rather to make a statement about even the sheep’s subservience to God. The highest service for the sheep is not that it be worshipped itself but that it be used as a sacrifice in the service of One God. The same applies to any belief or for that matter to any human being. Their highest service is not to be worshipped, but to be dedicated to the higher service of One G-d.
Today the threat of idolatry is not from the worship of objects or animals. The threat of idolatry is from the worship of ideas and forces to which society attaches an almost divine value. For example dedication to the forces of economics in Wall Street, bowing to power in Washington or worshipping celebrities as we’ll soon see people and the media do in the temple-like Oscars service in Los Angeles. Even secular environmentalism (as important as preserving nature is in the Torah) has become a religion with a god (the planet) halachot (recycling and carbon emission reduction), values and communities. Secular environmentalism also borders on avodah zarah (idolatrous activity). Even a secular, Godless belief in tikkun olam (improving the world) while ignoring the source of the very idea of tikkun olam, is idolatrous. The term tikkun olam, originates in the verse we say three times a day in Aleinu “to improve the world with the Kingdom of Hashem.” Secular believers in tikkun olam, have simply censored out the second part of the verse that coined the term! They have photoshopped God out of life.
The way to counter these unreasonable exaltations of the forces of economics, politics, entertainment or nature is not to mock them cynically or to negate them; they all have important places in society. There is a place for economics and the forces of free markets. There is a place for political power, entertainment and environmental awareness. Provided, that is, that these forces are not seen from the perspective of Godless secularity but as subservient to God’s will and His power. We need to demonstrate by our actions and our talk, that all of these forces only have value when they are used “to improve the world with the Kingdom of Hashem.” We need to uplift secular values not negate them. We need to subject these values to Divine service as the Jewish people uplifted the idea of the Egyptian god, the lamb, in the Pesach service.
The Jew’s spiritual enemy is not Islam; it is certainly not modern Christianity. Our true enemy is not any other religion especially not a monotheistic religion. The enemy of the Jew is not even the anti-Israel forces incited by Islamic extremists. All of these negative forces will evaporate if we live fearlessly authentic to who we are, what our values are and what we believe in.
The true enemy of Torah Judaism is a harder one to combat and has infiltrated the core of our communities: it is secular atheism, rife in academic circles, on university campuses and even in the heart of our own nation in our own Land and in communities throughout the Diaspora. Like a secular, atheistic belief in the power of economics, politics or nature so too a secular, Godless, atheistic belief in Jewish culture or even Zionism is counter to the essence of Torah Jewishness. Photoshopping God out of the very gifts He gave us and believing in them as Godless ends in themselves void of all sanctity is the ultimate act of avodah zara.
The Oneness that we emphasize three times a day in the Shema teaches that there is no dimension of life that has any Jewish meaning without its subservience to God and the Torah. Secular atheism is the Egyptian lamb of our day, and mocking or trivializing or marginalizing it is not the way to rise above it. Rather uplift society and its beliefs by improving the world and subordinating every aspect of it to the Kingdom of Hashem.