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Posted on August 23, 2012 (5772) By Rabbi Yissocher Frand | Series: | Level:

Parshas Shoftim

Enticement To Worship Avodah Zarah Is Worse Than The Act Itself

These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: Tape # 866 – Saying Yizkor During the First Year Good Shabbos!

In ancient times, idol worshippers would plant a tree, called an Asheira, which they used for ritual worship. The Torah teaches us at the beginning of this week’s parsha “You shall not plant for yourselves an Asheira of any kind of tree beside the altar of the L-rd your G-d which you shall make for yourselves. Nor shall you set up a one-stone monument (matzevah) which the L-rd your G-d detests.” [Devorim 16:21-22]. Rashi points out that we are commanded to make a multi-stone altar and an altar out of earth; however a single stone altar was the practice of the Canannites and it thus became detestable in the eyes of the Almighty. Rashi goes on to state “Even though the ‘matzevah’ was beloved to Him in the time of the Patriarchs, in latter times it became hated since it became part of the idolatrous ritual.”

The Ramban disagrees and comments that he does not understand Rashi’s logic because, after all, the Canannites made use of both single stone (matzevah) and multi-stone (mizbeach) altars in their pagan rites. He cites as proof of this statement the pasuk: “You shall break apart their mutli-stone altars and you shall break up their single-stone altars and their Ashera trees you shall burn in the fire…” [Devorim 12:3]. The Ramban therefore offers an alternate explanation: He suggests that the heathens had multi-stone altars within their Temples upon which they offered sacrifices to their various gods. Then they had one large stone at the entrance to the Temple upon which their priests would stand and they would plant in close proximity an enormous tree as an announcement – This is the way to the House of Avodah Zarah. We must remember that these are the days before billboards, neon signs, and helium balloons. How did they tell people how to get to the House of Avodah Zarah? They planted special big Asheira trees – the trademark of the House of Idolatry. Therefore, G-d, who detests Avodah Zarah forbade the Matzevah and Asheira and allowed only the Mizbeach which was necessary for the offerings.

The Sefer Ikvei Erev, asks the exact same questions on the Ramban as the Ramban asks on Rashi: Still, he argues, how did Ramban help matters? We still do not understand the difference between Mizbeach and Matzevah – why did G-d permit the former and prohibit the latter! On the contrary – according to the Ramban, the Mizbeach was INSIDE the House of Avodah Zarah and the Matzevah was OUTSIDE. The Mizbeach was the altar on which they brought their actual sacrifices; the Matzevah was only used as a platform upon which the priests would stand. It would make more sense to prohibit the Mizbeach and permit the Matzevah!

Therefore, the Ikvei Erev suggests a very interesting concept: The Ashera and the Matzevah that stood outside the House of Idolatry were WORSE than the Mizbeach which stood inside. He cites the law of the meisis – the enticer who tries to get people to worship Avodah Zarah [Devorim 13:7-12]. The act of enticing a fellow-Jew to worship idolatry is the worst crime a Jew can commit. The Torah prohibits having any type of mercy for the “enticer”. The judicial procedures surrounding the prosecution of the “meisis” have instructions that are stricter than any other judicial proceeding in regard to closing any “loop-holes” that might get him off the hook, so to speak.

There is even an unprecedented law that entrapment is allowed in the case of a suspected “enticer” – we are advised to hide witnesses behind a fence and ask him to repeat his words of recommendation regarding the pagan ritual and then the witnesses jump out and throw the book at him!

What we see from “meisis” is that trying to get people off the proper path to begin to practice Avodah Zarah is worse than the crime itself. The death penalty for idol worship is “sayif” (killed by the sword) whereas the punishment for enticement to worship idols is “skilah” (stoning), which is the most severe form of capital punishment.

If that is the case, we can now understand why the mizbeach, which was used for the idolatrous sacrifices themselves, was not prohibited for future use for Divine Service, but the Asheira and the Matzevah, which were used to draw people into the idolatrous temples, became detested by G-d and were banned forevermore from Divine Service.

National Tragedy Preempts Personal Loss

Parshas Shoftim contains within it a repetition of the laws of the Cities of Refuge. If a person kills another person unintentionally (b’shogeg), the next of kin of the victim has the right to seek revenge and kill that “unintentional murderer” unless he flees to the City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) wherein the “blood redeemer” (Goel haDam) is not allowed to harm him. The “unintentional murderer” is required to remain in this Ir Miklat until the death of the High Priest [Bamidbar 35:28]. Once the Kohen Gadol dies, the “unintentional murderer” is free to leave the City of Refuge and the “blood redeemer” is no longer allowed to touch him.

The Rambam discusses this set of laws in his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed). He says we can understand that if the Kohen Gadol lives another 50 or 60 years after this unfortunate incident, then the “blood redeemer” will have had time to cool down and he will not be so enraged when he sees the person who is responsible for killing his brother walking the streets as a free man. However, the Ramban asks, what if the Kohen Gadol dies a week or a month after the death of the brother of the “blood redeemer” – how and why should the death of the High Priest affect the understandable rage of the Goel haDam? We have a principle that a dead person is not forgotten until after 12 months. Therefore, perhaps there should therefore be a minimum sentence of 12 months in the City of Refuge for any “unintentional killer”!

The Rambam explains that the High Priest was the most honored and beloved individual in the entire nation. His death would be a national tragedy of the greatest proportions. It is human nature, the Rambam writes, that the occurrence of a “greater tragedy” minimizes the psychological impact of “lesser tragedies”. For example, suppose on August 28th, a person’s car transmission broke. He will be upset. It will cost him a lot of money. He is angry, and so forth. If on the next day, he hears on the news of a natural disaster somewhere in the world, which killed hundreds and left thousands homeless, he will be as aggravated about his transmission problem anymore. National tragedies put personal things into perspective!

The national tragedy of the loss of the most honorable and beloved son of the nation for whom everyone is in mourning, will put the tragedy of the unintentional death of the Goel haDam’s brother into perspective, such that he will now be able to handle the idea of the unintentional murderer walking around as a free man. The personal tragedy becomes nullified (batel), as it were, in the national tragedy of the Jewish people.

This is the way it should be. When Klal Yisrael suffers a tragedy, our personal troubles should be rendered insignificant. How many of us can truly say we react that way to tragedies that occur in our time to the Jewish people? Do we still complain about our petty problems when we read and hear about far greater challenges that face the Jews in Eretz Yisrael or elsewhere?

This is the ethical lesson (mussar haskel) to be learned from this Moreh Nevuchim regarding the laws of the Arei Miklat and the role of the death of the Kohen Gadol in setting free the one sentenced to exile in the City of Refuge. When Klal Yisrael suffers tragedy, all personal considerations should pale in comparison to our anxiety and concern about matters of national importance.


This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Torah Tapes on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Shoftim from the Commuter Chavrusah Series is provided below:

Tape # 019 – Copying Cassette Tapes
Tape # 109 – Hasogas G’vul: Infringing on Another’s Livelihood
Tape # 155 – Ba’al Tashchis: Cutting Down That Troublesome Tree
Tape # 202 – Melech v’lo Malkah: A Jewish Queen?
Tape # 249 – May A Daughter Say Kaddish?
Tape # 338 – Relying on a Goral
Tape # 383 – Circumstantial Evidence
Tape # 426 – The Mitzvah of Escorting Guests
Tape # 470 – May a Convict Escape?
Tape # 514 – Can a Ger Be a Rosh Yeshiva?
Tape # 558 – Competition Among Teachers
Tape # 602 – Saying Kaddish for 12 Months
Tape # 646 – Cutting Branches of Fruit Trees
Tape # 690 – The Grandson and Kaddish
Tape # 734 – Making a Bracha on a New House
Tape # 778 – “I’m Bar Mitzvah” – Do We Believe Him?
Tape # 822 – Making a Chanukas Habayis for a New Home
Tape # 866 – Saying Yizkor During the First Year
Tape # 910 – Business Competition Asur or Mutar
Tape # 954 – Visiting The Sphinx in Egypt−Is It Permitted?
Tape # 997 – Finding Out The Future: Mutar or Asur?
Tape # 1041 – Finding Out If “It” is a Boy or Girl? A Good Idea?
Tape # 1085 – Killing Innocent Civilians During Times of Warst 10, 2004)

Tapes or a complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.


RavFrand, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yissocher Frand and Torah.org.

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