We are well aware that the longing for avoda zara that we find in the stories of the first Temple period in Tanakh, does not affect our community today. What happened to this yearning for idol worship? In today’s world it is difficult to understand the attraction that biblical idol worship held for the Jewish people. The Gemara on today’s daf attempts to answer this question by means of a metaphor.
The story opens as the Jewish People begin returning from the Babylonian/Persian exile and return to the Land of Israel. We find that Sefer Neḥemiah describes a great prayer and cry to God (see Neḥemiah 9:4) which, according to the Gemara, refers to a cry of concern lest the same situation that led to the destruction of the first Temple, the burning of the Sanctuary, the murder of the righteous and the exile of the Jewish People would recur in the time of the second Temple. That is to say, the yetzer ha-ra of avoda zara – the lust and desire for idol worship – still remained. The leaders reasoned that the point of the existence of the yetzer ha-ra for avoda zara was to give the Jewish People credit for resisting it; they argued that it would be better to destroy this desire, even if it meant losing the credit for resisting it. After three days of prayer and fasting a note fell from heaven with the word emet – “truth” written on it, which was understood to be the word of God agreeing to their request.
Seeing that their request was accepted, the leadership decided to continue and ask that the yetzer ha-ra for other sins – notably sexual drives and desires – be destroyed, as well. The Gemara relates that this, too was given to them, and that it was imprisoned. After three days they discovered that chickens had stopped laying eggs, and realized that the positive elements of these drives should not be destroyed. The decision made was to blind the yetzer ha-ra, which limited sexual desires somewhat so that lust after incestuous relationships was removed, although other desires remained.
This description is an allegory for societal changes that took place between the first and second Temples. While desire for idol worship and sexual depravity was commonplace in the earlier period, they were insignificant during the second Temple period.