The Aseret HaDibrot are the fundamental building blocks of Judaism, ten integral commandments that define the basic tenets of our religion. Some of the Dibrot are difficult to understand (especially “Lo Tachmod,” conventionally translated as “do not covet”). The first two Dibrot, though, seem fairly straightforward. The first commandment is to know that Hashem is the one and only God, and the second is not to worship idols (Shemot 20:2-6).
But maybe it is too straightforward. How is the second commandment unique from the first? If Hashem is the only God, does it not go without saying that idols, animals, and stars are not God? Why is this a separate commandment?
Compounding this problem is the fact that when we read the Torah, there truly is no difference between commandments one and two. The Ba’al Keri’ah reads seamlessly from one to another without even pausing.
A better understanding of the prohibition of Avodah Zarah (worshipping foreign gods) can be attained by analyzing Moshe’s warning to Bnei Yisrael in Sefer Devarim: “VeNishmartem Me’od LeNafshoteichem Ki Lo Re’item Col Temunah BeYom Dibeir Hashem Aleichem BeChoreiv Mitoch HaEish, Pen Tashchitum VaAsitem Lachem Pesel Temunat Col Semel,” “Be very careful for your souls, for you did not see any image on the day Hashem spoke to you at Choreiv from the fire, lest you become corrupt and make an engraved image of any form” (Devarim 4:15-16).
Moshe Rabbeinu says that Bnei Yisrael may be drawn to idols not necessarily because they want to replace God but rather because they want to see Him better. God has no physical form, which makes it very hard for Bnei Yisrael to relate to Him. Moshe worries that they will ascribe Godliness to non-Godly physical objects, like the Eigel HaZahav, because they can comprehend the existence of a golden calf much more easily than the existence of an intangible being Who is omniscient, omnipotent and exists independently of space and time.
The message of the second commandment is that we are forbidden to worship God through any physical intermediaries. We may only worship him directly.
Perhaps this explains the Gemara (Makkot 24a) which states that out of the 613 Mitzvot, only two are spoken by Hashem directly to Am Yisrael: the first two commandments of the Aseret HaDibrot. Why does God choose these two particular Mitzvot to deliver Himself, as opposed to any of the other 611 Mitzvot, which are taught by Moshe Rabbeinu? Perhaps He sees fit to deliver these two Dibrot Himself because the prohibition against worshipping intermediaries to God cannot be delivered by a middleman, even one as great as Moshe Rabbeinu.
The first and second commandments are closely intertwined because someone who worships a physical object, thinking it is the one and only God, has violated both the first and second commandments. But each commandment is unique; a person can assign meaning to idols even while fully believing that Hashem is God.
But this calls to mind another question: how do these Dibrot apply today?
Surely there are some people who still worship statues or other physical objects, but they make up a minority of the world’s population. The majority of people, especially in the Western world, believe in nearly the same God we do or believe in no God at all.
How is the second commandment relevant in an age and culture where worship of foreign gods is exceedingly rare?
Perhaps the answer is that Avodah Zarah refers to any attempt to ascribe meaning to meaningless things, not just to false gods. Secular culture believes that people can find meaning in their lives by attributing meaning to anything they want—money, material possessions, beautiful sunsets, professional sports, or anything else. YouTuber and secular philosopher C.G.P. Grey explained it well, “A sunset doesn’t need meaning to be enjoyed; the enjoyment is the meaning” (C.G.P. Grey, “Q&A With Grey: Meme Edition”).
But religious Jews disagree—we believe that the only true meaning of life comes from the tasks God has assigned us. That is what the second commandment teaches us.
This is not to say that we cannot enjoy sports and material wealth; just it was perfectly fine for the Jews of three millennia ago to enjoy and appreciate the sun’s light, warmth, and beautiful colors as long as they did not worship the sun, we can enjoy and appreciate physical pleasures as long as we acknowledge that their only meaning—if they have any meaning at all—comes from the Torah.
The lesson of the second commandment is that true fulfillment comes only from the incomprehensible, intangible God, a lesson that is just as relevant today as it was at Har Sinai.