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Is Avodah Zarah relevent for our students?

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What is the relevence of Avodah Zarah for us today?

The meaning of Avodah Zarah
One of the most often occurring topics in tanach is that of Avodah Zarah. At the same time, it is one of the least relevant issues for our talmidim- or so one might think. One way this problem is dealt with educationally is to use Avodah Zarah as a metaphor (for wealth, fame…). Is there significance to the topic that emerges from a study of the plain sense of the text and is also of relevance to our students? I would argue that the answer is an emphatic “yes”!
            Let us examine a few texts that suggest a direction in this topic. In chapter 44, Yishayahu derides those that create idols and make them into gods, in the following terms:
(ט) יצרי פסל כלם תהו וחמודיהם בל יועילו ועדיהם המה בל יראו ובל ידעו למען יבשו:
(י) מי יצר אל ופסל נסך לבלתי הועיל:
(יא) הן כל חבריו יבשו וחרשים המה מאדם יתקבצו כלם יעמדו יפחדו יבשו יחד:
(יב) חרש ברזל מעצד ופעל בפחם ובמקבות יצרהו ויפעלהו בזרוע כחו גם רעב ואין כח לא שתה מים וייעף:
(יג) חרש עצים נטה קו יתארהו בשרד יעשהו במקצעות ובמחוגה יתארהו ויעשהו כתבנית איש כתפארת אדם לשבת בית:
(יד) לכרת לו ארזים ויקח תרזה ואלון ויאמץ לו בעצי יער נטע ארן וגשם יגדל:
(טו) והיה לאדם לבער ויקח מהם ויחם אף ישיק ואפה לחם אף יפעל אל וישתחו עשהו פסל ויסגד למו:
(טז) חציו שרף במו אש על חציו בשר יאכל יצלה צלי וישבע אף יחם ויאמר האח חמותי ראיתי אור:
(יז) ושאריתו לאל עשה לפסלו יסגוד יסגד לו וישתחו ויתפלל אליו ויאמר הצילני כי אלי אתה:
(יח) לא ידעו ולא יבינו כי טח מראות עיניהם מהשכיל לבתם:
(יט) ולא ישיב אל לבו ולא דעת ולא תבונה לאמר חציו שרפתי במו אש ואף אפיתי על גחליו לחם אצלה בשר ואכל ויתרו לתועבה אעשה לבול עץ אסגוד:
(כ) רעה אפר לב הותל הטהו ולא יציל את נפשו ולא יאמר הלוא שקר בימיני: ס
On one level, he is noting the foolishness of the individual who fails to see the folly of worshipping the product of his own hands. How can he fail to see that it is ludicrous to worship a piece of firewood?
However, there is a deeper meaning to the message of Yishayahu here. In order to appreciate this message, we need to look at the famous narrative of Pesel Michah. The key text is found in Shoftim (chapter 17):
 (י) ויאמר לו מיכה שבה עמדי והיה לי לאב ולכהן ואנכי אתן לך עשרת כסף לימים וערך בגדים ומחיתך וילך הלוי:
(יא) ויואל הלוי לשבת את האיש ויהי הנער לו כאחד מבניו:
This young man was hired to be an “av v’kohen”; yet in the end he is “keechad mibanav”. This captures the essence of Avodah Zarah. The priest of Pesel Michah was ostensibly his spiritual guide, dictating his direction in life according to the divine will. Instead, the agenda is ultimately dictated by Michah. He is in effect his own god, projecting his desired lifestyle, beliefs and values onto his man-made god.
            This is the “purpose” of Avodah Zarah- to allow oneself to invent a rubber-stamp god, a validation of one’s own desires and values. This is what chazal mean when they say that the Jews worshipped the golden calf to allow them to publicly indulge in sexual immorality.
Yishayahu therefore describes this person who uses the same log for cooking, warmth, light and creating a god. The deeper message is that all of these are examples of using this material to serve one’s own desires. There is no real distinction between using the wood for heat, light or cooking or using it for inventing a god that serves its creator! This is the deeper message of Yishayahu’s image in chapter 44.
Once we understand this perspective on Avodah Zarah, the topic of Avodah Zarah is no longer arcane and removed from our situation. While we may not encounter full fledged pagans or idolatrous practice every day in our time and place, the essence of the prophets’ message is highly relevant to how we aught- and aught not- approach torah and Halachah. Far from being irrelevant to our students, it is of critical importance to their religious lives!