Thank you, Yaira, for sharing your insights & wisdom with She Answers Abraham readers!
“You shall completely destroy all the places there, where the nations that you’re dispossessing worshiped their gods: on the high mountains and on the hills and under every lush tree. And you shall demolish their altars and shatter their pillars and burn their Asherot in fire and cut down the statues of their gods and destroy their name from that place.”
On first reading, this passage seems harsh and not at all fitting with the concept of religious pluralism. These verses—when removed from their original context and interpreted on a literal, surface level—can lead to fundamentalism and trouble. So first, let’s put them back into context.
By Divine decree, Moses will not cross with the Israelites into the Promised Land—so by the bank of the River Jordan, he gives his final address to the people. He begins by reviewing the exodus from Egypt and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Then he offers guidance about how the Israelites should conduct themselves moving forward.
The central message that I hear in all of his advice, throughout the book of Deuteronomy, is to keep God as the focus of their lives. They are told to love God, “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) The people are told to demolish the worship spaces, altars and statues of the former occupiers of the land because the continued existence of these things would distract them from true service to God.
Next, let’s look beyond a literal interpretation. It’s important to know that what happens in the Torah is not just an event in the distant past. Just as Moses stood addressing the Israelite people thousands of years ago, he stands today, here in my living room, talking to me. What I hear Moses saying to me is that to enter the Promised Land—to uphold a sacred, covenantal partnership—I must clear out all the things in my life that would distract me from a central focus on God. All of those false idols of cash and comfort and consumerism must go, and what must remain is true and constant devotion. When these verses are interpreted in this light, they are a reminder that to live a life grounded in the holy, we must keep our hearts clear of clutter and open to God.
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*Yaira is a Jew who believes that honest interfaith engagement is an important part of the connective, healing work so needed in the world right now. Yaira has a B.A. in English and is working toward an M.A. in Theological Studies. She is married with two boys and is fueled by laughter, gratitude and radical amazement.