Ever since the tragic disaster of Nadav and Avihu, the Torah has dedicated all of its energies to teaching the Jewish people as a whole how to infuse their lives with holiness. Beginning with eating, ending with sex, those most basic of human activities, and covering everything else in between, the Torah now dedicates the final verses of chapter 20 to neatly wrapping up this unit, reminding us of important points that were made along the way, and repeating its central thesis. A literary structure that would make any writing professor proud.
Until verse 27 destroys it. “A man or a woman who has with them an Ov or Yidoni shall surely die, they will be stoned, their blood is upon them.” A law that stuck out like a sore thumb earlier in the chapter, now thumbs itself at the Torah’s lovely structure. This is either the work of a drunken editor, or there’s something the Torah wants us to learn here.
Chapter 20 is full of infractions whose punishment is death, but every single one of them has to do with the violation of a relationship. There is, however, one word which tenuously connects the law forbidding fortune-telling to this theme. When it is first mentioned, in verse 6, the Torah speaks about the one who turn after the Ov or Yidoni “liznot achareihem“. We are familiar with this root in the context of idol worship; idol worship is seen as “cheating on” God by being loyal to another deity. But that can’t be the meaning here- in this verse, we’re not talking about worshipping another god at all, only about using sorcery to find out our future. What’s unfaithful about that?
To go to a fortune teller is a betrayal of our ability to choose, an escape to the comforting ease of fate. We tried to suggest in chapter 18 that the problem with incest can be understood as a similar betrayal- building a relationship on existing biological closeness rather than choosing to forge a bond with a true ‘other’. Holiness, the Torah is teaching us, is about making a choice.
This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation
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