Chaim Ingram

Re’eh: Droll Models

When G-D your G-d will have cut down from before you the nations which you are about to dispossess and you dispossess them and settle in their land,  beware of being lured after their ways after they have been wiped out from before you, lest you seek out their gods saying: “How (eicha) did these nations worship their gods? I too shall do likewise!” (Deut 12:29-30).

 Legend has it that the famed Maharam,  R’ Meir of Rothenberg (13th c.) had a bright daughter who expressed the wish to learn Talmud.  Her father, in order to test her mental acuity, asked her the following riddle: Two men descend down a chimney. When they landed on the floor one had a clean face while the other had a stained face.  Which one went to wash his face?

The girl was too astute to fall for the ruse. She said: “The clean one of course because he looked at his friend’s face and saw that it was stained so he thought his was stained too!”  And the father looked at her admiringly and said “you are clever, my daughter, but you don’t have a head for Talmud!.  If two men descend down a chimney, how can it be that only one had a stained face?”  The Maharam’s lesson: always seek the underlying question.

Rashi, in his familiar terse style, cites the underlying question in the verses with which we began.   Eicha! How is it possible after you saw G-D destroy these nations with their gods powerless to save, that you still imagine these value-less nonentities have anything to offer you!

 Rabbi Berel Wein tells the parabolical anecdote of the renowned but mentally ailing professor who gets off the bus at Har Nof and cannot recall his own address. He accosts a young man in desperation and asks: “can you,tell me where Professor Avneri lives?” The young man, smiling faintly, says “saba (grandpa), don’t you recognise me?”

Where we are now, we have been before.  Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  We are a brilliant nation with but one chronic weakness:  we appear not to be able to learn from history, to recognise in our grandparents’ generations the same mistakes that were made in their ancestors’ generations right back to the dawn of our nation.  How is it possible we can still emerge with stains on our face? That from Baalism to Hellenism to Sadducism to Karaism to Reform to arch-secularism, large parts of our nation constantly mistake illusion, ersatz, for the real thing?

R’ Asher b. Yechiel, the Rosh (1250-1328) points to the apparent contradiction in the  verse cited at the outset. First it says G-D will dispossess the Canaanite nations then it says Am Yisroel  themselves will dispossess them.  The answer is that both are true. Am Yisrael succeeded because G-D orchestrated it. This is in contrast to “the strength and the might of my hands” mentality of which Moses warns the people (Deut 8:17). If it was we and we alone who defeated the Canaanites, there’s no proof (ch.v.) that G-D is superior to Baal.  And it was assuredly that mentality that prevailed when, not too long after the conquest of Erets Yisrael,  Baal-worship reared its ugly but seductive head among the nation of Israel.  After all, the idols wink at sin!  Even Eliahu HaNavi’s dramatic intervention (I Kings 18) failed to have a lasting effect

Perhaps there is another factor too, hinted at by the use of the word eicha.  Here were we thinking we had seen the back of that terrifying title-word of Jeremiah’s Lamentations presaging disaster and destruction. Actually, the word first appears in variant form at the very dawn of human history.  After Adam and Eve fatefully ate of the sole forbidden fruit, G-D thunders to them ayeika “where are you?” (identical letters to eicha).  The Midrash Raba (19:9) comments homiletically: “How (eicha) have you fallen! Yesterday you were ruled by my will and now you are ruled by the will of the serpent” (a euphemism of course for the yetser ra, our base desires).

How long will we continue to limp along on our ersatz-chasing Achilles heel?.  Surely when we begin to learn the lessons of our history, when we seek, from the richness of our illustrious past, worthy role-models, not droll models, surely then we shall have demonstrated to G-D that we are ready for redemption!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at
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