The Book of Bereishis is filled with outstanding events that formed the foundation of the universe and the world as we know it. Many of the events described appear difficult to understand. The sun and moon were not created until day four. So, what was the light and the day and night until the creation of the sun and moon? How long were the days? How could Adam sin if he did not have an evil inclination? Were the original creations created fully grown or did they develop? What about the scientific theory of Pangea and all the land being one mass? Was darkness a creation? What is the water above the earth? Since the Torah is a book of Mitzvos, what is the entire Book of Breishis doing in the Torah? Finally, since G-d created man, how did idolatry develop?
The Rambam provides us with the background to the origins of idolatry. Adam’s third son was Sheis. Sheis had a son Enosh. In the days of Enosh, people erred in their thought. They said to themselves that G-d created the stars and planets. The reason that He placed them in the heavens was to share His honor with them. They are His ministers and it is proper to praise them too. That is the will of G-d. They built temples to honor the stars and offered sacrifices. Their intentions were to worship G-d. They looked at the creations as intermediaries for G-d. That was their major error – in the words of the Rambam – their foolishness.
Over time, false prophets arose who insisted that G-d had commanded them to worship the stars, sun, moon, etc. Eventually, G-d was forgotten, and the items were worshipped. There were no human beings who recognized G-d – except for selected individuals – Mesushelach, Noah, Shem, Ever - until Avraham came along and set much of the known world straight.
The Rambam is teaching us that the basic problem was that the people did not give credit to G-d. They ascribed all the power in the world to items. G-d was forgotten. In a certain sense, we see some of this idea in our world today. People ascribe power to the items rather than to G-d. One example is the mitzva of mezuza. If you would ask 100 people, “what is the purpose of a mezuza?”, I am pretty confident that a vast majority of the responses would be, “It protects the house.” That answer is 100% incorrect. The mezuza does not protect the house. There is a mitzva to place a mezuza on the doorpost that serves us as a reminder about G-d’s presence in our home. In the merit of the mitzva of mezuza, G-d protects our homes.
But, this misconception that the mezuza protects the home is analogous to the idea that the stars are in charge and not G-d. One must be careful in how to analyze and observe mitzvos.
The same idea presents itself when people go to cemeteries to daven at the gravesites of great and holy Jews. Sometimes people might have the idea that they are davening to the righteous people. G-d forbid such a thought! In the laws of Rosh Hashana, the Shulchan Aruch states that there is a practice to go to the cemetery on Erev Rosh Hashana and daven at the graves of tzaddikim – righteous people. The Chafetz Chaim – in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch - the Mishna Berura – explains: “the cemetery is a resting place of the righteous and prayer is more acceptable there. However, one must not place his thoughts towards the deceased. But he should request from G-d that He have mercy on him in the merit of the righteous who dwell in the earth.”
The history of the origins of idolatry teaches us a very important lesson about our attempt to understand the world and the universe. The original causers of idolatry made a single fatal error. They thought they understood G-d. They saw mysteries in nature – the sun, the moon, the stars – and attempted to understand the philosophic origins of their creation. To attempt to understand G-d is like attempting to understand a complex painting from up close. Sometimes, the painting can only be understood from afar. Human beings live in the world up close. We are not privy to G-d’s logic. Therefore, when we try to understand the mysteries of Creation – whether they be the age of the earth, evolution, or Pangea – we should realize that we don’t know exactly what happened. We are certainly allowed to explore knowledge, but we must always remember that G-d is the master of the Universe and is capable of everything. We cannot know for sure if the world is 5780 years old or 6 billion years old. That was the mistake of the causers of idolatry. They convinced themselves that they knew for sure how G-d operated, and their end was to forget G-d entirely.
The Rambam is teaching us that by bearing in mind that G-d created everything, all our questions are answered. Anything is possible. When one forgets the idea of G-d as the Creator, false ideas enter one’s thoughts and the process degenerates from there.