A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

The Extremity of Our Reaction to Alien Worship

This week’s parasha opens with Moshe Rabbenu laying out the obligation, soon after entering Israel, to have a public ceremony of bracha and klala, of blessings and curses. The blessings come for doing what Hashem asks of us, the curses for not. In 11;28, Moshe defines the curses as coming if we stray מן הדרך אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם היום, from the path he was commanding that day.

Rashi says those words teach us that anyone who worships avodah zarah, which I prefer to translate as alien worship (since it’s not limited to physical idols), has strayed from the entire path the Jews were commanded. That, he adds, is the source for Sifrei’s statement (on this parasha, par. 54) that anyone who accepts alien worship denies the whole Torah.

A few verses later, 12;3, he records R. Akiva’s view, Avodah Zarah 46a, that ואבדתם את שמם, you shall destroy their names, tell us to give places or items of alien worship a שם גנאי, a derogatory nickname, with some examples. It’s not enough to stay away from them, to refuse to accept their worldview, R. Akiva held that we had to actively denigrate them.

The two Rashis remind me of two principles—largely unargued—that have been lost in too many circles today. First, if one agrees or concedes that alien worship is true, even without worshipping, that itself is like denying the whole Torah. Meaning that someone can be a frumma Yid in all the obvious ways, wearing the right garb, keeping Shabbat, giving tsedaka, learning Daf Yomi, helping the elderly and infirm across streets, davenen with much apparent kavannah with a minyan three times a day, and still be someone who has denied the whole Torah!

We resist admitting that, but in that resistance we shut ourselves off from a simple truth, that Hashem is, sometimes, a strict taskmaster. The examples are limited, but they’re there, that sometimes a single act, done intentionally, can put a person completely outside the pale.

That message is so important, R. Akiva and Rashi tell us, that to communicate it properly means we sometimes cannot adhere to the otherwise vital standards of civility. This, too, happens only in a narrow range, and can easily be exaggerated (or done where it shouldn’t apply), but civility should not be extended to alien worship. It should be mocked, R. Akiva sees our verse telling us.

The Necessity of Learning

12;28 tells us שמור ושמעת, to guard and to observe, all that Moshe Rabbenu is telling us. English translations read that first word as “be careful.” As we saw in Parashat VaEtchanan, Rashi here again translates it as referring to Mishnah, which we have to keep in our stomachs (our insides), that we not forget. If we learn and review, Rashi says, there’s a chance that we will hear and observe. Teaching us that anyone who is not בכלל משנה, among those who study, is not בכלל מעשה, will not be among those who observe.

I repeat it from two parashiyot ago for two reasons. First, it confirms that this is a motif for Rashi, an idea that looms larger than the text itself seems to require. Second, for Rashi, Torah study is a requirement for basic observance, not just a value or ideal, and not just a prerequisite for rabbis. To keep the religion, to serve God, study and knowledge is indispensable.

Hating the Seducer

Chapter 13 takes up the topic of a seducer, when one person tries to bring another to alien worship. 13;7 says this might be a brother, a half-brother, a spouse to whom we are closely connected, אשר כנפשך, which Rashi explains as the verse stressing that this is someone for whom we have very warm feelings, deep love.

Verse nine goes far beyond warning against agreeing to worship with that person. לא תאבה לו, Rashi tells us, means we cannot like that person anymore; ולא תשמע אליו means we cannot listen when that person is begging us to spare his/her life; ולא תחמול means we cannot try to find ways to defend or excuse his or her actions; and ולא תכסה עליו means that if we have knowledge of that person’s guilt, we must report it, are not allowed to stay silent.

Several of those phrases, Rashi points out, order us to act exactly opposite to how the Torah told us to act towards fellow Jews. We are, ordinarily, required to love our fellow Jew as ourselves, to prevent the death of others (not just not cause it). Here, that’s not true.

But wait, there’s more. Verse ten tells us ידך תהיה בו בראשונה. Rashi reminds us that Chazal take that to mean that the target of luring to alien worship must be first to implement the death penalty on a convicted seducer. Only if those efforts don’t kill the criminal will others come to assist.

There I am, innocent Jew, living in the comforting and beloved embrace of family and friends, and all is well with the world. A close relative or friend, whom I love, decides that some form of alien worship has value to it (remember: this seducer need not reject Judaism, just call us to join in one act of alien worship), and that forces me to wipe away my love, remove my compassion for this person, cease to seek possible avenues of leniency, report him or her, and then be the one to enact his or her death penalty.

Obviously, we and the Torah hope this never happens. But reading the verses reminds us of Hashem’s abhorrence of alien worship and also that we cannot always live lives of love and joy and happiness. Sometimes, very much against our will and to our great dismay, we can be forced to react harshly, negatively, unforgivingly, and even lethally against others.

Remembering the Levi

On the other hand, 14;27 reminds us not to forget the Levi, which Rashi understands as a reference to ma’aser rishon, the tenth of a harvest given them after the 1-2% given to the kohen as terumah. The Torah explains the need to remember to do that by saying that the Levi has no share or inheritance with you in the Land. Rashi notes that that’s why poor don’t have to tithe the agricultural gifts they receive, since a poor Levi has an equal share in those.

The comment suggests that ordinary Jews’ need to care for the Levi—and Rashi to 12;19, on the words על אדמתך tells us that these warnings only apply in Israel; outside of Israel, the Levi is no different than other poor—is not purely a financial matter. While that last Rashi implies that the concern is for the Levi’s poverty, the other Rashis, and the rules the Torah lays out, suggest to me that we have to remember the Levi because he does not have the connection to the Land other Jews do. Regular Jews all have tribal, familial, and personal shares of Israel, that come back to them every yovel, that they can farm as a means of sustenance but also as a means of entrenching their ties to that wonderful Land.

The Levi doesn’t have that, and it is sensitivity to that element of the Levi’s life, I think, that the Torah wants other Jews to cultivate. Having worked the Land and had a productive year, the farmer gives some to God, represented by the kohen. After that, the Jew has to say, “oh, right, there’s this tribe dedicated to taking care of the Temple and to teaching the rest of us Torah and who, therefore, has no personal share or connection to the Land. Let me share my connection to the Land with him, share with him the good sides of my life, as he spends so much time and effort serving my and our needs.”

Religious Economics and Political Science

15;4 promises that there will be no אביון among the Jewish people, which Rashi says denotes someone poorer than the ordinary poor. As Rashi points out, this verse seems at odds with verse eleven, which says there will never cease to be an אביון in the land. He answers that when we fulfill Hashem’s Will, the impoverished will be from other nations; when we do not, there will be impoverished among us as well.

Two verses later, the Torah promises that we will lend other nations and, as Rashi notes, will not have to borrow from anyone. It’s not just that we’ll be in the black, we won’t have to borrow at all. Similarly, we will rule others and—Rashi stresses—others will not rule us.

To me, it’s a reminder of the meaning of independence and of an aspect of economics and political science that many of us forget. First, independence means not being beholden, economically or politically. For example, Japan and China today each hold well over a trillion dollars of US debt. We need not ascribe any nefarious or even negative intentions to either country to recognize that that certainly limits the US’ independence in important ways. It doesn’t mean the US doesn’t have a great deal of power and influence, just that it also is limited.

The promise is that Israel would not have that. It would be a country with influence and power over other nations, and also not be beholden to anyone.

The second piece—a simple truth which, distressingly, many observant Jews fail to recognize—is that crucial to achieving that level of independence is fulfilling Hashem’s Will. Economics and politics, Judaism has always recognized, have a human element. Part of our human responsibility is to understand those aspects of it to achieve the best outcomes for as many people as possible.

But there’s also a divine role in all of that, which we ignore at our peril. By serving Hashem faithfully, we improve and increase the chances that we, as individuals and as a nation, will see outcomes we want.

Alien worship, whom to love, and how to get to our best possible lives. Five Rashis (or so) for Parashat Re’eh.