The Torah commands in Parashat Kedoshim (19:4), “Do not turn to the idols, and do not make for yourselves gods of metal.”
The Torah is an eternal book whose messages are eternal. And thus although paganism in its ancient form – the worship of inanimate objects – does not really exist in our society, nevertheless, the lesson conveyed by this prohibition is as relevant today as ever.
It has been observed that the Torah in this verse first speaks of “Elilim” (“idols”), and then calls them “Eloheh Masecha” (“gods of metal”). When a material object is elevated to the status of an “Elil,” as an object of high value and importance, it is eventually perceived as an “Elohim” – a deity, the supreme value in a person’s life.
This phenomenon is, unfortunately, alive and well in our society with respect to money. Nobody worships money as a divine being, but many people, sadly, afford too much importance to it, perceiving it as a supreme value. There are many people whose minds are preoccupied mainly with the pursuit of wealth most of the day, every day. There are those who devote inordinate amounts of time to furnishing their homes so they can enjoy the highest standards of luxury. And people invest untold numbers of hours, sacrificing time for family, for prayer and for learning, to work and earn wealth so they can purchase luxury cars and go on luxury vacations.
Our religion is not opposed to wealth, or to luxurious homes, cars and vacations. Poverty is not a virtue according to Jewish teaching. However, we are warned against making anything other than G-d our highest priority. And this includes money and material standards. It is perfectly acceptable to work, earn money, and then enjoy the money we earn, but on the condition that it does not become an “Elil” – the object to which we accord the greatest value. We need to keep money in its proper perspective, and recognize that there are things far more valuable and important.
I recall once passing by somebody’s home on a Sunday afternoon and watching him washing his car. I looked carefully and saw that he not only washed the metal, but also the tires. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with washing one’s car. But washing one’s tires? I believe this reflects an unhealthy obsession that falls under the prohibition against “Elilim.”
Enjoying material benefits is perfectly acceptable, but we must stand guard to avoid falling into an obsession with materialism. We need to maintain our priorities, to always be mindful of what’s more important and what’s less important, and ensure not to turn money and luxury into “Elilim.”