We are in the midst of trying to understand why, in the prohibition against listening to a person who performs wonders and ‘signs’ and then tells us to worship avodah zarah, the Torah states, “For he has spoken falsehood about Hashem… who has taken you out of Egypt.” Furthermore, we must understand why the Ramban adds the rationale that since, “we became aware at Har Sinai in a face-to-face experience that G-d commanded us that we not worship anything at all other than Him.” Why does the Torah tell us not to listen to this “prophet” because of our experiences at yetzias Mitzrayim and Har Sinai? Why is it necessary to say that? And what about non-Jews, who are also commanded not to worship avodah zarah, but did not personally experience those phenomena? What are they to do when faced with such a situation?
Jews are different. Jews are commanded not to worship avodah zarah from a unique paradigm. Look at the passuk that describes our obligation not to listen to this ‘prophet’: “For Hashem your G-d is testing you, to know if you indeed love Hashem with all your hearts and all your souls.” Our prohibition of avodah zarah goes beyond the normal idea of an obligation. It goes beyond a mere command. It is part and parcel of our relationship with Him, our loving Him. We know that the source for having to give up one’s life rather than worship avodah zarah is the very obligation to “love Hashem…and with all your soul; i.e., even if it requires the taking of your soul.” Once again, we see that the obligation to go beyond the norm in regards to avodah zarah is a manifestation of our love for Hashem. Indeed, most Rishonim hold that a non-Jew is not obligated to give his life rather than worship avodah zarah, as he does not share this paradigm.
We approach our abhorrence of avodah zarah from the perspective of our special unshakeable bond with Hashem, our ahavas Hashem. Therefore, the Torah talks of a nisayon, a test, to see if we are upholding our special obligation of loving Hashem. What is ahavas Hashem, and where should it come from?
The passuk that speaks of Hashem’s ‘choosing’ B’nei Yisrael, states (Devarim 7:7-8): “It is not because of your numerical superiority that Hashem desires you (to be His Nation); for on the contrary, you are relatively small in number. Rather, it is due to Hashem’s love for you that He has desired you…” Ramban there describes that love as an unshakeable bond between two sides, which nothing can rend asunder. “The passuk does not mention the reason for this “choosing,” for the passuk speaks of Hashem’s love for you… (It is known that ) love is the result of a close bond that nothing can deter; and the nation of Yisrael, which is by nature stubborn and single-minded, will not violate their bond with Hashem, even when threatened with death.” Our bond with Hashem, a bond of mutual love, is based on this idea of mesirus nefesh —that we take it to be unassailable.
Therein lies the difference between the prohibition of avodah zarah and other aveiros. A prophet telling us to violate, temporarily, a mitzvah of the Torah is to be listened to (if he has heretofore been established as a legitimate navi). But avodah zarah? This is an act that bespeaks an absolute break between Hashem and Klal Yisrael, something that attacks the very heart of our emunah. That is the very antithesis of ahavah (love), and our basic bond and association with Hashem is founded upon that! Nothing can shake that!
This is why we find a Medrash (Shemos 15:23), which states “Hashem tells B’nei Yisrael: ‘I am not prohibiting the nations of the world against avodah zarah, but only you’; and that is why the passuk states (Vayikra 26:1) ‘You shall not make idols for yourselves.” This is clearly puzzling, as certainly one of the Noahide laws, to which all humankind must adhere, is the prohibition against idolatry. Perhaps the answer is that this prohibition, from the perspective of the Jewish people, including as it does the requirement to be moser nefesh, prohibited even as a one-time event, even coming as a directive from a known, tried and tested navi, is a whole different ideal, since it is based on our ahavah towards Hashem and His reciprocal ahavah towards us.
Yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah both encompass this idea. The Ramban writes (Devarim 4:32) in explaining the pesukim that speak of the severity of the prohibition of avodah zarah (we read these verses at the Tisha Be’Av morning service), that it is specifically because “Hashem did for you what He did not do for any other nation… He took you from amidst another nation… and spoke to you face-to-face from the fire at Sinai…”
Ramban frequently puts forth the idea that Klal Yisrael’s history is directed by Hashem in a direct way, without the angels through which Hashem directs the fate of other nations. All this manifests our status as an am segulah and the uniqueness of our nation. Thus, the obligation not to listen to a prophet saying to worship avodah zarah is really nothing ‘new,’ it is merely a logical furtherance of that prohibition, since it stems from the love we are to experience in our avodas Hashem. That is how the passuk expresses it, “for Hashem is testing you to see if you love Hashem with all your hearts and all your souls”
Our emunah, our basic bond with Hashem, which is a result of our avodah of ahavah, is something that we are called upon to be tested about many times. It is not enough to profess belief. Our belief must be able to withstand the test of mesirus nefesh, the test of maintaining that belief system in the face of the vicissitudes of life without losing the bond that is ours alone.