Parshios Netzavim & Vayeilech
Of Blandisments and Seductions
There would be no tomorrow for Moses. He knows this is the last day of his
life, and as he stands before the people, he strives to leave them with a
message that would carry them forward to success in the Promised Land. What
concerns occupy his mind at this auspicious moment?
He is concerned about the influence of the idolatrous peoples among whom the
Jewish people find themselves. "You have seen their abominations," he
declares, "their idols forged from wood and stone, from silver and gold."
Should anyone embrace these gods, Hashem will respond with fuming anger and
the most horrific curses.
Why was Moses so concerned about this? For forty years, he had conditioned
the people against idolatry, teaching them the numerous commandments in the
Torah which prohibit anything remotely resembling idolatrous practices.
Surely, a deep antipathy to idolatry had become ingrained in the national
psyche, a strong aversion to the pagan abominations and their degenerate
lifestyles. Why was he afraid that they would backslide into idolatry - as
indeed they did?
Before we explore this intriguing question, let us focus for a moment on
Moses' somewhat curious choice of words. Why does he find it necessary to
specify that the abominations are made of "wood and stone, silver and gold"?
Why dwell on the range of materials from which idols are made?
Here in this very phrase, explain the commentators, lies the crux of the
matter. Moses knew without question that the Jewish people emerging from a
forty-year-long divine encounter in the desert, from the daily miracles of
the manna and the cloud and fire pillars, from intensive study of the Torah
under the tutelage of the greatest prophet of all time, were on a very high
spiritual level. Without question, they would find the idols thoroughly
abominable, vulgar contrivances of wood and stone.
But human nature is a fickle thing. As time goes on, people have a tendency
to comes to terms with their surroundings, to legitimize the illegitimate.
Before long, Moses feared, those execrable idols of wood and stone might
begin to take on a different aspect in their perception, undergoing a
transformation to silver and gold. This was where the danger lurked.
In this light, we can understand a rather puzzling comment in the Talmud. In
the Torah, the laws of the Nazirite vows and the laws of the suspected
adulteress appear next to each other. What is the significance of this
juxtaposition? The Talmud explains that when a person witnesses the public
degradation of the adulteress, he should take the Nazirite vow of abstinence
from wine in order to protect himself from promiscuity.
But why would the sight of an adulteress in disgrace threaten a man's
virtue? Shouldn't it have quite the opposite effect? Here again we come face
to face with the vagaries of human nature. Although his first reaction might
have been profound disapproval, the image of the adulteress may linger on in
his mind and becomes legitimized and sanitized with time. Therefore, he
should turn to the Nazirite vows for protection.
An old man developed a propensity for alcohol in his old age. During his
binges, he would stagger drunkenly through the marketplace and often fall
asleep in the gutter. His son, a respected member of the community, was
mortified. Something had to be done.
The son decided to take his father to the marketplace on one of his sober
days. Together. they walked past the stalls until they found a drunk lying
in the gutter in a state of stupefaction.
"Look at him," said the son. "Do you see what drinking does?"
man stared intently at the snoring drunk.
"Indeed, I do," he said. "I wonder what kind of wine he is drinking. It
seems to be wonderful stuff."
In our own lives, we need to recognize the seductive power of forbidden
fruit. "Never trust yourself," the Talmud advises. Just because we frown on
the deprivations and abominations of modern society does not mean that we
are impervious to moral subversion. What seems disgusting to us today may
seem interesting tomorrow. Only by insulating our families from unnecessary
exposure to the degeneracy of the street can we preserve the purity and
holiness that are inherently ours.
The Secrets Of Longevity
Only two mitzvahs in the Torah come with the promise of a long life: Kibud
Av V'em - Honoring our parents and Shliach Hakan - sending off the mother
bird before taking the fledgling children.
These mitzvahs seem totally dissimilar and unrelated. In fact, the Midrash
tells us that the two mitzvahs are the easiest of the easy, and the most
difficult of the difficult, yet they should have the same reward. Honoring
our parents is extremely difficult. Sending away the mother bird and taking
the children is so easy. Why does the Torah designate the exact same reward?
And why did the Torah designate these particular two mitzvahs? For the
reward of a long life?
The commentaries explain that these two mitzvahs span the spectrum of human
nature. The Torah wants us to perform the merciful act of sending away the
mother bird before taking the children. Mercy is a common, human emotion. We
instinctively feel a search of mercy and compassion when we see an animal in
distress. This is because the animal poses no threat to us. Our base
goodness emerges when there are no complications and prejudice ness that
come into play. The Torah tells us to reinforce our mercy and compassion
through the mitzvah of Shliach Hakan.
Honoring our parents, however, is one of the most difficult of all mitzvahs.
It requires us to acknowledge what they have done for us, and forces us to
admit how much we need them, and we could not have done it ourselves. It
tests our egocentricity to the ambit. We would like to be independent, self
sufficient, and invincible. Recognizing our parents forces us to say "I owe
it all to you" This then is the most difficult of the mitzvahs.
The Torah, however, does not designate the reward simply on the basis of
what is easy and what is not. The infinite reward of mitzvahs is dependant
on the spirit in which they were performed, and the love with which they
were dispensed. Long life in the world to come can be secured by good deeds
regardless of whether our body propels us to do it or creates obstacles.
It's how much in a fuel we are contributing to the act that determines its
true value. Thus the Torah designates the identical reward for when we are
following our base instinct in the easiest of all mitzvahs, or we are
countering it in the most difficult. It is the spirit that truly counts.
A king was being paraded along the highway. Jubilant cheers accompanied
the row pageantry pomp and splendor. Nearby a fellow was swimming in the
river when he heard news of the king's imminent passage. Jumping out the
water he saw the king's chariot from the far. In a surge of passion and
excitement, he ran up the riverbank and wildly waved and cheered the king in
his bathing gear. People were taken aback at his lack of basic. The king
noticed him from the far and to the sheer dismay and aghast crowds he
welcomed him into his plush carriage. This fellow truly loves him. "He is
not thinking of his honor, he is only thinking of mine."
In our own lives let us be conscious of emphasizing the spirit of the
mitzvah as much as the details. The details of the rituals are important,
but it is the spirit that enables us to lift off the ground and connect to
the heavenly spheres ensuring a life of infinite bliss.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.