In today’s Parashah, Moshe tells the Children of Israel that we are to restrain from performing certain acts against our G-d. The first three verses of Chapter 12 have a laundry list of articles to consider:
- Demolish, yes; demolish all their [sacred] places
- Wreck their slaughter sites
- Smash the memorial statues
- Burn their Asherot [sacred poles]
- Cut down the images of their gods
- Obliterate their name from that place
Rabbi Yishmael says, “Could it even occur to you that Israelites would break down the altars [of G-d]? But the meaning of the verse is that you are not to imitate the deeds [of the idolaters] lest your sin cause your ancestors Sanctuary to be destroyed.”
Rashi used R. Yishmael’s quote as a foundational text for his commentary on this passage. However, as Ramban candidly and respectfully points out, R’ Yishmael’s words are Agadah [a homiletic interpretation, a parable]. While based on Scripture, we should not take them as the pashat [plain sense meaning] of the Biblical text.
I am not saying that the words of Rabbi Yishmael are worthless. They certainly ring with truth, but I halt my agreement when he uses the words, “But the meaning of the verse is, etc.” He introduces an alternate interpretation in place of the Plain Sense meaning. By doing so, he voids the passage of exegetical meaning.
Instead, these verses are an admonition that the very things Hashem commanded against the idols in the Promised Land are the very thing we shall not do unto Hashem our G-d. However, the most important thing the Rabbis noticed was the juxtaposition of “obliterate their name from that place” and “You shall not do thus unto Hashem your G-d.”
The Rabbis understand this passage to warn us against erasing the Divine Name. Further, Sifre states, “When do I know that he who dismantles one stone [of the altar], etc? Rabbi Yishmael states, “When do I know that he who erases one letter of the Divine Name transgresses a negative commandment? Because it is written, and you shall destroy their name – you shall not do so unto the Eternal your G-d.”Rabban Gamaliel, the son of Rabbi says, “But how could it occur to you [that the Israelites would dismantle], etc.”
Let’s unwrap this:
The prohibition, as the Rabbis understand it, covers both the dismantling of his Altar and the erasing of his Name. Rabbi Yishmael, however, differs. He prefers to see an caution against imitating the deeds of idolaters, which in turn, will cause the destruction of the Sanctuary. Ramban sees “You shall not do thus” is simply a caveat against erasing the name [an opinion also held by Rabbi Yishmael because his opinion is not designed as a dispute]. Further, Rabbi Yishmael’s words are quoted by Rashi as a clarification that erasing the Divine Name is equivalent to dismantling the altar of Hashem. Finally, the text quoted by Rashi [in the name of rabbi Yishmael], is attributed to Rabban Gamaliel in Sifre, which [as a parable] says that sinning is tantamount to destroying G-d’s altar.
The holiness of The Name further explains why no scrolls of Esther exist in Qumran. Since The Name [Hashem] never appears in the scroll, the soferim did not preserve them with the same honor as the other Biblical scrolls.
 Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 [The Torah portion is entitled Re’eh]
 Deut 12:4
 Translations of the six restraints taken from The Schocken Bible Volume 1, my own translation, and The Aramaic Bible: The Targum Onqelos to Deuteronomy
 See b.Makkot 22a
 Sifre Re’eh 61 [as quoted by Ramban]
 Judah ha Nasi, the redactor of the Mishnah