Shabbat Chol Hamo'ed Pesach
“You shall make no molten gods for yourselves” Exodus 34.17
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In general, it is fair to characterise the Torah commentators of the Middle Ages such as Rashi, Avraham ibn Ezra or Ramban as looking to provide the real meaning of the text.
This contrasts with the Chasidic writers of the last 300 years, who often afford themselves considerable latitude and allow the words of the Torah to soar and lead us to a truth and meaning well beyond the original context. Such interpretations may not obviously explain the literal meaning of the words but can be powerful insights into our spiritual lives.
A dazzling example is the comment made by the Rebbe of Izbica, Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854) on the verse quoted above. The context is a section of the Torah prohibiting idolatry. The Rebbe of Izbic focuses on the Hebrew word masechah, “molten”, noting that it also means a mask, a superficiality. The verse now means “Do not make gods of the shallow and superficial.”
Continuing, he explains himself. Where is that shallowness to be found? In an astonishing leap, he identifies that superficiality in the general universal laws of the halachah. These general principles which apply equally to all people at all times are surely inadequate. Can we not aspire to a spiritual life wherein we discern our own personal truths and our own personal laws?
Thus he lays down the immense challenge of finding personal resonance in the rules of the Torah. This is rarely achieved by varying those rules but by becoming familiar with our real natures and understanding of our true spiritual needs. Then the Torah will become personally relevant and not merely a set of universal rules applicable to all.