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You shall have no other gods before Me
By Irwin CohenAt Mount Sinai there came the group of statements now known as the Ten Commandments. One of these statements contains a very strange sentence.
What is the meaning of "a Jealous God?" Does God have human emotions? Why should children and grandchildren suffer for the sins of the parents?
But this isn't "jealous" in the human sense. The Hebrew word can be translated in several ways, but here the Torah is stating that the Creator made one and only one set of laws governing all of Creation, and these are rigidly enforced, and we must never think we can substitute our own laws, which would be false gods.
Ignoring the Creator's laws of gravity or of electricity brings harm. Ignoring the Creator's laws of human behavior by substituting our own laws also brings harm.
But why does this harm come to the children? Contrary to what some believe, this is not a threat of vengeance, but rather a compassionate warning against a hidden danger. Similarly, a parent warns her child against fire not because she is threatening vengeance but because fire is dangerous. What is the danger in this case?
This statement specifically refers to "graven images," which were used in those days to represent imagined forces that were not a part of the real world. People never thought that a clay image of Baal would have power, but they did use the image to help pray to a god of power. They didn't think that a carved image of Astarte could give them sexual mastery, but they prayed to their gods of sex and fertility for this. Power they sought, and sexual gratification, and fame and riches and whatever else might satisfy their desires, and for these they prayed to imagined gods.
Service to false gods is the unrestrained seeking after fame, power, riches, self-indulgence, and other such delusions of personal aggrandizement. To acquire wealth for its own sake and to seek ever more wealth -- that is service to a false god. To seek riches for the sake of riches, power for the sake of power, fame for the sake of fame -- these and other such pursuits indulge one's personal appetites at the expense of others, and this is service to false gods. The harmfulness to self and to others of such service is clear.
Less clear is the hidden danger to children.
The Creator's laws of human behavior are infinitely more complex than the Creator's laws of the physical world, but they are as inescapable as the law of gravity. We understand human behavior only imperfectly, but we do know that flawed parental behavior harms children. It is becoming widely recognized, for example, that the children of child abusers frequently become child abusers.
Parents are the primary role models for children in the most important early years. When parents fail this role, children suffer. Service to false gods disregards this parental responsibility. The parent who values money over people, who loves power, who gratifies himself or herself at the expense of others, imbues his or her children with these false values. They in turn, if they cannot overcome this handicap, pass along these false values to their children, so the damage accrues to the third and perhaps even the fourth generation. That is the hidden danger to the children.
It is not punishment. It is not vengeance. It's the way we are. The mistakes of the parents harm the children, and our compassionate Creator, like a loving parent, has warned us.
Bio note: Irwin Cohen is a retired Professor of Youngstown State University. He is a member of Rodef Sholom Congregation in Youngstown, Ohio and a student Rabbi Muller's Bible classes.
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