Not only does the Torah teach us what to do and what not to do. It admonishes us before we turn off the proper path. Last week’s portion cautions us not to turn after our eyes or hearts. Exodus 34:11 enjoins us not to socialize with idol worshippers lest we marry a spouse who will lead us away from our faith.
Most often the warnings about sin are succinct and precise. The focus of the Torah is clear: avoid any activity that will lead to straying from the path of Hashem. This week the Torah seems to spend as much effort exhorting us about involvement with bad influences as it does with sin itself.
The Torah discusses two scenarios where people intend to lead Jews astray. The first case is of the false prophet. Deuteronomy 13:2: “If there should stand a prophet or dreamer who will produce a sign or a wonder saying, ‘let us follow gods of other folk,’ do not hearken to him.” The Torah then exhorts us to keep our faith and elucidates how to deal with the bogus seer. The next section deals not with a false prophet but with a kinsman. Deuteronomy 13:7: “If your brother, son of your mother, or your son or daughter or your wife or a friend who is like your soul, secretly entices you saying let us worship other gods, those that you or your forefathers did not know.”
The Torah does more than exhort us not to follow the would-be influencer. It reiterates the admonition in no less then five different expressions. “You shall not accede to him; you shall not hearken to him; your eye shall not take pity on him; you shall not be compassionate toward him; you shall not conceal him.”
When it refers to our own misdoing or those of a false prophet the Torah simply warns us, “do not listen” or “do not follow your heart.” Yet when referring to kin the Torah offers a litany of variations on a theme of disregard.
Shouldn’t our own feelings need more and stronger admonitions than ideas suggested by a friend or relative? Surely a prophet who conjures awesome miracles should warrant five or six expressions of caution. In that case, all the Torah says is, “do not listen to him for Hashem is testing you.” There is no talk of mercy, compassion, or concealment, as there is when the Torah talks about kin. Why?
Robert A. Rockaway, a well-known author on Jewish American history, decided to publish a work on a less glorified Jewish persona, the Jewish gangster. In his research he interviewed old-time Jewish mobsters, their families and friends. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he actually interviewed his own mother who knew some of the notorious families that he was writing about.
In discussing some of the nefarious deeds of one of the local thugs, his mother stopped him abruptly. “That all may be true, but he was good to his mother!”
The Torah understands the intimate affinity our people have towards relatives.
It only needs one or two words of warning for us not to listen to the false prophet who comes with miraculous signs and mesmerizing oratory. It only tells us, “don’t listen to him.” Even when discussing our own desires and infatuations it simply warns us, “do not turn after your heart.”
However, when referring to kin, brothers, sisters and relatives, the Torah has a difficult mission. We tend to excuse wrongdoing, cover up for misdeeds, and harmonize with our loved ones — although the results may be terribly destructive. There are countless stories of parents who did not have the heart to restrict their children’s late-night activities. Too many tales are told of the man who was ensnared by his brother-in-law’s misdoing because he had not the heart to refuse his overtures to evil.
The Torah expresses its warning in five different ways. You must love your kin to a point, but way before the point of no return.
But — He was Good To His Mother, The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters, by Robert A. Rockaway, (c) 1993 Gefen Publishing Ltd.
Text Copyright © 1995 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.