The Sin of Compartmentalization
The Torah prohibits the making of any sort of graven images or forms: “For you did not see any image on the day God spoke to you at Chorev in the midst of fire.” Ostensibly, this commandment negates any sort of attempt to assign corporeality to God; in doing so it lists a number of images and symbols that are not to be used: “the form of a male or female,” “the form of any beast that is on the land,” “the form of all winged bird that fly in the heavens,” “the form of anything that creeps on the ground,” “the form of any fish in the waters under the land.” (4, 15-18)
This detailed description is curious. Firstly, it seems that this list limits the infinite possibilities of forms that could be made, leaving the option to find a loophole in the law and make an image of something not included in the list. While the midrash halacha closes off any such option for a loophole, it seems strange such a possibility should exist in the first place. (Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Masechta d’bachodesh, 6)
One could say that this list represents well-known examples from that time period, based on what people at that time tended to make; as the halachic rule goes “dibeir hakatuv bahoveh,” “the scripture spoke in the present.” This explanation makes sense in light of the following description from the prophet Yechezkel, “And I went in and saw and behold every detestable image of crawling things and beasts, and all the idols of the House of Israel, portrayed on the wall all around.” (8, 10)
Even so, the need to specify that the bird flies in heaven, fish swim under water, and animals live on land is still unclear. One possible explanation for these seemingly extraneous descriptions is that this is not a list of examples meant to illustrate a general principle; rather this is a description of a potential scene that could be portrayed- all of creation, each thing in its place, in heaven or on earth. And each item is in motion, man and woman, beasts, birds, and fish. This is a portrait of the world, of creation. The Torah is telling us not to absorb ourselves in the worship of nature as a whole; we should not use nature as a substitute for the Creator and Divine Providence in order to explain the world around us.
The explanation in the midrash continues this line of thinking. It draws a connection between the objects God uses in His rebukes of the People of Israel- man, nations, and beasts- and the nation’s inappropriate focus on those same objects. While God set up nature as a testament to bear witness to His existence, the People of Israel sinned and focused on the witnesses themselves. They turned objects that were made to serve their faith into the subjects of their faith.
He had the mountains bear witness for them as it says, “Listen, mountains, to the quarrel of God;” (Micha 6, 2) they sinned through the mountains and hills as it says, “On the tops of the mountains they sacrifice…” (Hoshea 4, 13)
He had the nations bear witness for them as it says, “So hear, nations;” (Yirmiyahu 6, 18) they sinned through the nations as it says, “They mixed among the nations.” (Tehillim 106, 35)
He had the beasts bear witness for them as it says, “An ox knows his owner;” (Yishayahu 1, 3) they sinned through the beasts as it says, “They exchanged their glory for the form of an ox.” (Tehillim 106, 20)
… They sinned through the beasts and wild animals and birds as it says, “And I went in and saw and behold every detestable image of crawling things and beasts, and all the idols of the House of Israel, portrayed on the wall all around.” (Midrash Tanaim Devarim 32, 1)
This midrash teaches us that Israel’s path to sin was connected to the human tendency they had to replace what was symbolized with the symbol. Beasts, birds, and fish all have unique attributes that may give them the ability to testify to God’s existence, yet these things also make them a source of inspiration in their own right. Yes, we can learn modesty from the cat and industry from the ant; but instead of seeing these things as an image of higher traits imbedded into creation by the Creator, they are seen as an independent source of these traits. And so there is a concern that the traits and characteristics of these creatures will be set into a specific framework or image and fixated onto an icon, while the meaning behind the symbol is lost. Connecting these traits and values to certain creatures or states of creation, instead of to the Creator, limits the potential significance and impact these values can have, while unjustly glorifying the creature or state it is connected with.
There is a grave danger involved in focusing on details and their traits, assigning specific traits to specific contexts. It is like assigning various attributes and characteristics specific drawers. These things must not be compartmentalized. We must develop the understanding that all these traits stem from one unified source. This understanding can lead us to the realization that we can and should harness the various traits inside ourselves and master them all so that they can be used in the proper time and place, like a symphony of instruments, all with different qualities and uses. Instead of sorting our characteristics into boxes, labeling them “good” or “bad,” “elevated” or “base,” we should focus on the way they complete each other, since they were all given to us by one Creator.