This post is part of a weekly series of Torah commentaries presented by the American Jewish World Service. It was contributed by Aviva Presser Aiden.
Parshat Masei opens as the wanderings of the Israelites are coming to an end. The land east of the Jordan has been conquered and divided, and God is commanding Moshe regarding the procedures to be followed upon entering Israel. Included in these commandments is a verse that dictates that when the Jews enter Canaan, they should banish the Canaanites and destroy their holy relics and holy sites—raze them all, utterly and completely, or face God’s wrath for failing to do so: “You shall destroy all their figure objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their altar-places.” ((Bamidbar 33:52.))
Reading this verse might well make us shudder, as the overt and deliberate destruction of sites holy to any faith is repellant to many modern readers. Israel’s 1967 Protection of Holy Places law and the international outcry over the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan, Afghanistan, ((Gall, C. “From Ruins of Afghan Buddhas, a History Grows.” New York Times, 6 December 2006.)) highlight this sentiment. Moreover, we have a strong tradition in the U.S. of respecting and enabling the religious and cultural practices of others.