One of the topics the Torah connects to the Exodus is that of a mesit, a Jew who tries to entice another Jew to worship עבודה זרה, loosely translated as idolatry. The Torah devotes a surprising amount of attention and emotion to it; in explaining that, I think we’ll see how the general lessons of the topic apply today, even if the practicalities do not.
So Many Prohibitions
The Torah teaches us about the inciter to alien worship in Devarim 13;17-12, and places much of the onus of reacting upon the target. The Torah warns that person not to listen and not to continue to love or like the inciter. In fact, halachah understands the Torah to obligate the target to continuously hate the inciter, prohibits that person from saving the inciter should his/her life be in danger, prohibits the victim from offering reasons to absolve the inciter of his crimes, and requires that victim to bring forward any damning evidence he or she knows.
In all, Rambam counts six prohibitions related to incitement, close to two percent of all the prohibitions in the Torah. As if that were not enough, halachah also assumed that the target had to take the lead in administering the capital punishment.
Based on the Torah’s telling us not to be enamored of, nor to have compassion for, the inciter, Sifrei and Sanhedrin called for treating this Jew differently than other defendants. First, the obligation to love our fellow Jew is suspended. In addition, we handle this court case without several usual leniencies. For one example, we reopen an inciter’s decided case only to see if we erred in acquitting him, not, as in other cases, only when it’s to possibly free the defendant.
Why is this crime different from all other crimes?
The Closeness of the Relationship
I think the crucial part of the answer lies in the way the Torah imagines the situation unfolding. Devarim 13;7 speaks of our brother, son or daughter, wife (who rests in our bosom—a wife with whom we’re close, whom we love), or close friend (“who is like your soul”) approaching us with the idea of adopting a practice of alien worship.
Remember that in the Torah’s time (as in ours), many people were comfortable acting within multiple traditions—they would have a serious Shabbat observance and then a serious Ba’al observance. I believe today, too, some people are open to adopting practices and traditions from other cultures, some of which seem to qualify as halachic alien worship.
Our Susceptibility to Evaluating Right and Wrong Emotionally
The act of incitement, in other words, did not have to take the form of a call to abandon Judaism or Hashem. It could be as simple as “do this and you’ll see a tension release like you wouldn’t believe.”
Recent discussions of central cultural issues show that being close with somebody who takes the opposite point of view often leads people to rethink their own positions. Many people have announced publicly how a close connection to someone who had an abortion or committed euthanasia (or chose to commit suicide) or engaged in homosexual activity changed their perspective of the topic.
In moral and philosophical terms, it shouldn’t matter. If something is wrong, the fact that someone near and dear to us acts that way doesn’t change anything about the issue. Yet for many people, it’s the opposite, it’s the evidence that they need to rethink their view.
To me, that’s part of what the Torah was warning against, and requiring us to be vigilant about. It’s relatively easy to reject a straightforward call to abandon our deeply held beliefs and commitments. But if a close friend invites us over and suggests, during the meal, that we join in an idolatrous practice, that can be harder to resist. Which is why it requires so much vigilance.
In verse 10, the Torah says the reason we have to stone this close relative to death is that they tried to draw us away from Hashem Who took us out of Egypt. Why do we need that? Would it not have been enough had this person tried to draw us away from the Master of the Universe or, even more clearly relevant, Who gave us the Torah at Sinai?
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch offers what seems to me the answer, that the Exodus was supposed to be the event that forever precluded being drawn in by such people. The response isn’t only “that’s prohibited,” or “Hashem told us not to,” it’s “how could I possibly join in the worship of anything other than Hashem, when I know that Hashem is the sole power in the Universe, since Hashem took us out of Egypt.”
Meaning that one more element of the Exodus that we Jews are supposed to carry around with us at all times is that the experience of the Exodus so fully debunked the possibility of other powers being worthy of any sort of worship that we will react with the Torah-mandated hatred and lack of compassion the person who sought to lead us astray.
It’s not an easy standard, and it’s not one we ever hope to put into practice, but I believe it sheds further light on what the Exodus was supposed to mean for us as Jews.