Those who received a typical Jewish education probably never learned the story of pesel Micha (Micha's idol). Why would a yeshiva teach chapters 17-18 of Shoftim when they could be force-feeding Gemara to children before they are ready and turn many of them off? It is a tragedy that so many otherwise knowledgeable Jews still relate to Tanach on the level of small children, where their education of Hashem's written word was frozen.
At most they heard a Midrash that when the Jews who left Egypt crossed the sea, they brought pesel Micha with them (Tanchuma Ki Sisa 14, Sanhedrin 103B, and elsewhere).
The only problem is it isn't true. It can't possibly be true. It's unclear exactly when the story of pesel Micha happened, but he was a lad when it began. It's quite a stretch to suggest he was already born when the Jews left Egypt, several generations earlier at least. Furthermore, pesel Micha was fashioned from silver coins that Micha stole from his mother all those years later and then returned. It didn't exist when the Jews crossed the sea.
Chazal knew this, and they expected us to know it, too. So what's going on here?
The plot thickens, as other Midrashim clearly state that pesel Micha did not accompany the Jews when they crossed the sea – for the reason just mentioned – yet they still bring pesel Micha into the picture.
Shemos Rabba 41:1 states that the silver of pesel Micha crossed the sea, not the actual idol. This is also difficult. What is one piece of silver from another? How and why was this particular silver kept separate and designated to fashion an idol generations later, only after Micha stole it and returned it? This Midrash addresses one problem, but replaces it with several more.
Rashi on Sanhedrin 103B cites this Midrash, then presents an alternative from an unknown source. He writes that after Moshe cast the name of Hashem into the Nile to raise the coffin of Yosef, Micha snuck over and took what Moshe had written. He carried it with him when the Jews crossed the sea and misused its divine power to create the egel, the golden calf.
Once again, this solves the historical impossibility of pesel Micha being present when the Jews crossed the sea, but the alternative explanation is almost as difficult. It presumes that Micha was a lad when the Jews left Egypt, and somehow still a lad generations later when he stole the silver from his mother. Furthermore, it presumes that one of the prime instigators of the sin of the golden calf escaped justice, while everyone else paid with their lives, accompanied the Jews to Israel, and lived a long, prosperous life, while continuing on his idolatrous ways.
One can accept many things on faith, but this cannot be what Chazal are really telling us.
Indeed, yet another Midrash, the Midrash Aggadah Bamidbar 1:15, explicitly states the obvious historical truth: it wasn't literally Micha's idol that crossed the sea, but Micha already had thoughts about making it from the time the Jews left Egypt. They explain that when it comes to idolatry, unlike most other sins, the Torah holds one accountable for his evil thoughts in addition to the actions he eventually takes, which is why other places state that he literally brought the idol through the sea.
This Midrash can settle our minds about pesel Micha going back in time after it was fashioned, but it still fails to address why there is such an obsession to connect Micha in one way or another with that period of time.
It is important to understand that the style of Midrash is different than that of halacha. When Chazal spoke in terms of Jewish law, they were precise in their language and left nothing to the imagination. When they spoke in terms of Midrash, they couched deep lessons in metaphors and allegories.
They did this for a variety of reasons. Just as a schoolteacher or a motivational speaker will employ various devices to drive a message into the hearts and minds of his audience, Chazal taught philosophical and spiritual lessons with their unique style. In addition, not all messages were meant for all ears. Certain deeply spiritual lessons were intended only for particularly advanced people, and were transferred through cryptic teachings. Those who were meant to understand would understand, and those who weren't would scratch their heads and move on. Sometimes, Chazal simply needed to avoid censors and informers, as we can well understand to this day.
What emerges from this is that sometimes Midrashim are meant to be taken literally, and sometimes not. Determining which is which is half the challenge, and if it is the latter, one must uncover the true meaning if he can. Because of this basic misunderstanding of what Midrash is all about, most Jews dogmatically insist that every Midrash is literal, which is foolish, or they dismiss everything Chazal teach us in Midrash as irrelevant and untrue – “just a Midrash” – which is heretical.
With this in mind, let's return to Chazal's persistent placement of Micha, his idol, or something used to fashion it, with the Jews crossing the sea. If they wanted to criticize the idolatrous tendencies of the Jews when they left Egypt, why did they bring pesel Micha into it? Why reach so far into the future to pick on Micha of all people to plug into what happened generations earlier?
Once again, Chazal expected us to have learned the actual story. Let's return there, where we will find important clues.
It states in Shoftim 18:30 that the false kohanim who administered the worship of pesel Micha remained until the ten tribes were exiled centuries later. This, despite the fact that Shmuel abolished the actual idol (at least the original). What was so alluring that this particular idolatry had staying power in Israel like no other? And how was it not abolished by the various righteous kings who had a zero tolerance policy for idolatry?
The answer to all our questions is hinted in the story. Micha's mother sanctified the silver to Hashem so that her son could fashion an idol (Shoftim 17:3). The contradiction should be self-evident, but such thinking was entirely normal at the time.
Like so many other evils, idolatry originally started with good intentions. People were unable to connect to the idea of serving an invisible God, or refused to believe that God would want a direct connection with a lowly being in this world. They needed an idol to serve either as a physical representation of God, or to serve as an intermediary between them and God. They didn't intend to rebel against God, but to bring God into their lives in a more tangible way so they could serve Him better.
The problem is that God explicitly forbids such forms of worship, regardless of the intentions. One cannot claim to be serving God when He is violating God's explicit commandment. Even if the well-intentioned sort of idolatry doesn't lead to depravity – as it almost inevitably does – it is a cardinal sin.
Pesel Micha was a subtle form of idolatry. It resembled the authentic divine service in the Mishkan, and its practitioners sought assistance from Hashem, not a false god. On the surface it appeared quite kosher – which is what makes such idolatry the most sinister.
Beneath the appealing outermost layer, everything about pesel Micha was fraudulent, as idolatry always is. Micha turned his home into a shrine, hung up a shingle, and went into business. His Kohen was not an actual Kohen, but a wandering Levi in search of something, anything. Close enough; Micha hired him on the spot.
A group of men from the tribe of Dan spent the night at Micha's inn. They were en route to scout out some land to conquer, and recognized the Levi. The fact that Micha had hired him to be a Kohen didn't perturb them in the least; in fact, they requested his idolatrous services to receive a message from God. The priest assured them in the name of Hashem that they would be successful.
The group from Dan came upon the city of Layish, which was both the perfect land for their needs and an easy target. They returned home with the good news and raised an army of six hundred men, crediting Hashem for their good fortune. On the way to Layish, they stopped off at Micha's place and cleaned out his religious articles. When the priest asked what they were doing, they told him to shut up, put his hand on his mouth, and come work for them instead. It was a better deal, and he had no alternative; he happily agreed.
Micha heard the commotion and chased after them. Just like that he was out of business, wiped out. The people of Dan were uninterested with his plight. Like mobsters making someone an offer they can't refuse, they suggested he stop complaining about it, lest something unfortunate happen to him. Micha returned home emptyhanded, and the group of bandits sacked Layish.
Everyone in the story portrays themselves as serving Hashem, but in reality they were serving themselves. Micha opened a shrine because it was a good business opportunity. The Levi worked as an idolatrous priest because he needed the money. The people of Dan were like modern mobsters whose religious side always plays second-fiddle to “business”.
Hashem's name was nothing more than a prop to legitimize whatever they intended to do anyway.
That's what pesel Micha represented – a way to do what you want, while purporting to do it in Hashem's name. You could have your cake and eat it too. That's why it was so appealing, and why it endured for centuries, even after the original idol was destroyed.
This also explains Chazal's insistence on placing Micha's idol, or some facsimile thereof, at the scene when the Jews left Egypt. Egypt was the world capital of idolatry and witchcraft. The Jews had seen it all – and they had seen God take it all down. They knew that there was no substance to idolatry, and it would be a long time before they really believed in idolatry again. Indeed, Chazal teach that they initially returned to idolatry as a subterfuge to condone licentiousness (Sanhedrin 63B).
Micha's idol, on the other hand, accompanied them out of Egypt. They didn't believe in actual idolatry at that point, but they clung to the notion that one could serve Hashem his way instead of His way. Long before Reformers and their ilk would deform the Torah, long before Christians and others would invent a “new” version – before the Jews were even given the Torah – they were still reserving the right to hijack the Torah for their own agenda, rather than let the Torah set the agenda.
The Midrash that Rashi cites, that Micha misappropriated the divine name to create the golden calf, makes perfect sense now. The Jews didn't believe the egel they fashioned months after leaving Egypt was the God who took them out of Egypt – how could they? Chazal teach us that the Jews worshiped the egel not as a replacement for Hashem, but as an intermediary to Him. It took only a few hours for this to descend to murder, licentiousness, and general self-serving behavior – in the name of serving Hashem. Just the sort of behavior we saw with pesel Micha.
Chazal were teaching us a very deep and subtle message, one that is desperately needed in our days. There is probably not a single Jew on the planet who would sacrifice his child today to Ba'al or Molech. Yet many thousands of Jews have tragically been fooled by purveyors of Micha's idolatry, who come dressed in religious garb, speak a familiar language, and package their idolatry in citations from the Torah. This type of idolatry persisted long after the idols themselves were abolished.
These Jews have allowed themselves to believe that they are serving Hashem when they are really serving entirely different entities. They continue to wear masks, inject themselves and others with potentially lethal garbage, persecute their fellow Jew who dissents, and enslave themselves to Amalekites at war with God. They are jeopardizing literally everything in this world and the next in exchange for short-lived convenience and comfort. That is always the bargain when it comes to idolatry.
The inclination to serve Hashem on our terms, and to hijack His word to kosher up whatever we already decided we are going to do, is the most powerful and persistent form of idolatry. It is what led the Jews to stray after the golden calf, and it is why every time the Jews are punished they get a little added on to pay back for that ancient sin (see Rashi to Shemos 32:34).
Pesel Micha didn't begin when Micha fashioned his idol during the period of the Shoftim, and it didn't end when his idol was destroyed. It is one thing to abolish actual idol worship – this our ancestors finally accomplished – but another thing to root out the idolatry of misusing the divine name. This is the most critical job that still remains to us.
Let's finally get it done.