An Idolatrous Gimmick: Burn One; Get Five Trouble Free
The laws of Molech are found in Parshas Achrei Mos [Vayikra 18:21]. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah #208) records this Biblical prohibition that had been prevalent in Biblical times—the sacrificing of a person’s offspring to an idolatrous deity known as Molech. This has to be one of the most difficult of all idolatrous rites to understand. The ritual consisted of parents handing over their child to the priests of Molech. The priest, the Chinuch suggests, would somehow wave or present the child before the idol and then light a big fire in front of the idol. The priests would return the child to the father and the father would pass the child through the fire which was in front of Molech.
The Chinuch cites a dispute between the early commentators about the fate of the child offered to Molech. Rashi and the Rambam understand that the child would merely be quickly passed through the fire, but would not be killed. The Ramban understands that the child is actually burned to death by the fire. This is a mind-boggling thought. How could a father take his own son and kill him in the service of Avodah Zarah?
The Chinuch points out that technically the prohibition applies to one who gives some of his sons to Molech (mi‘zar-oh l’Molech). But theoretically if a person would offer all of his sons to Molech, he would not be deserving of the death penalty.
This is counter-intuitive. How could it be that someone becomes deserving of the death penalty by putting one (of many) sons through the ritual; but escapes the death penalty for putting all of his (other) sons through this ritual? What is the interpretation of this?
No less a personage than the Teshuvas haRashba deals with this question (Chelek 4 Siman 18). The Teshuvas haRashba explains that it is perhaps possible to excuse a person who offers one of his sons to Molech. He is not totally wicked and for him the Torah recommends the death penalty so that it should serve as his kapparah (atonement). But a person who sacrifices all his sons to Avodah Zarah is so bad that the Torah does not allow him to have kapparah. A court executed punishment which provides atonement is too good for him. The Torah wants him to die at the Hand of Heaven and to suffer for all time.
The Chinuch offers his own explanation for this paradox, which simultaneously explains the irrationality of Molech worship in general.
He explains that the priests of Molech used to tell the parents: If you sacrifice one of your children to the Avodah Zarah, the other children will turn out good. It was all a ploy. Everybody wants to have good children. This was a great gimmick: Give us one son; put him through the fire (according to the Ramban – let him die); but the rest of your children will be great kids! This was the come-on, and it explains how people were led to involve themselves in this patently inhumane form of idolatrous worship: It is worth it to sacrifice one child for the sake and betterment of the other children. This is the Chinuch’s very novel and unique rationale for this practice.
What does this have to do with us? Today we do not have Molech; we have never witnessed such a crazy idolatrous rite. More to the point, nowadays the Biblically present Yetzer HaRah (evil inclination) for Avodah Zarah has been removed. The Talmud says that the Men of the Great Assembly nullified the Yetzer HaRah for Avodah Zarah [Yoma 69b].
Some time back I read a very interesting article by a Rabbi Henoch Plotnik. He points out that Molech may be gone, and nobody puts his child through fire anymore, but unfortunately, we still sometimes practice Molech. How is that? Sometimes parents are willing to sacrifice one child for the sake of the other siblings.
There are no guarantees in life and we cannot pick our children. We all want each of our children to be a great Torah scholar and the next Godol HaDor. But not all children are cut out for that. Sometimes a child belongs in a school that is not a “Class A” yeshiva, not an “Ivy League Yeshiva,” and not even a “University of Maryland State Yeshiva.” He needs to go to a third or fourth rate yeshiva, because he is not cut out for heavy duty Talmudic study. Sometimes parents need to come to the realization that not every boy is cut out for intense Yeshiva study.
However, sometimes parents conclude, “No. Our son must get into THAT yeshiva.” Because if I put him into that OTHER TYPE of Yeshiva, it will make it hard for his siblings to find desirable marriage partners (“it will shter their shidduchim). Even though this yeshiva is not for him, and this kid is going to fall on his face and be miserable in this yeshiva, the parents feel it is worth it to sacrifice this child for the sake of the other children. “I need to make shiduchim. I have five daughters!”
His point was—is this not the modern version of Molech? Is this not the same crime of sacrificing one child because it is going to be good for the other children? Modern man looks at Molech and says “How can people be so crazy? “How could they fall for this? How could they sacrifice one child for the sake of the other children?” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Of course, we are not so primitive as to burn them, but we still sometimes sacrifice them nevertheless.
The illustration above is not the only example. There are many things that we will not do because of “What will they say?” and “How will this affect the rest of the family?” On the altar of “How will people look at us?” we sacrifice one or more children—for the good of the other children.
This is a difficult challenge and a difficult situation to be in, but Solomon’s wise advice was “Educate a child according to his nature” [Mishlei 22:6]. Everybody quotes this rule of thumb (Chanoch l’naar al pi darko), but we do not always practice what we preach. It is a nice saying, but sometimes it comes at a price. Sometimes applying this principle means giving the child not what you had imagined for him or her, but giving what that particular child actually needs.
Had Darwin Seen the Chofetz Chaim, He Would Have Never Made Such a Claim
The pasuk states in the beginning of Parshas Kedoshim: “A man, his mother and his father he shall fear, and my Sabbaths you shall keep, I am Hashem your G-d.” [Vayikra 19:3]. This is the positive Biblical command of treating one’s parents with awe and respect. The Torah here links this mitzvah with the mitzvah to observe the Sabbath.
We are all familiar with the exposition the Talmud makes on this pasuk: If a father tells his son to desecrate the Sabbath or to violate any other prohibition, the mitzvah of honoring and revering his parents is suspended. In other words, the responsibility of honoring and respecting the wishes of the Almighty trumps the responsibility to honor and respect his parents.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky in his Emes L’Yaakov offers a novel homiletic interpretation to this pasuk, providing a different insight as to why these two mitzvos are linked. Rav Yaakov says that there is a fundamental difference as to how we view parents (and elders in general for that matter) depending on a very fundamental philosophical question. People who believe that the world was created on its own (e.g., the “Big Bang Theory”) and that there was always some kind of matter which developed into the world in which we live, are individuals who feel that this is a godless world. Coinciding with this non-Torah theory is the Theory of Evolution which claims that slowly but surely, over billions of years the world developed. First there was simple life until there developed various forms of animal life, and so forth. We are all familiar with the basics of this theory that man evolved from a primate—an ape or a monkey or whatever it may be. The theory is that slowly but surely these primitive creatures developed until the human beings that we have today came into existence.
According to the theory, modern man is much further along in development than primitive man. Consequently, the further someone moves away from the original “cave man,” the more respect the specie deserves. Therefore, the young do not need to honor their elders, but rather vice versa: The elders—who are closer to primitive man—need to honor the young, who are more developed than the older generation.
However, if someone believes in Creation—that G-d created Heaven and Earth in six days and then rested on the seventh—then the most perfect of human beings was the first one—Adam—who was created directly by the Almighty, the handiwork of the Ribono shel Olam. With this approach, the further we get away from that first man, and certainly the further we get away from Sinai, we witness a gradual descent of generations. Therefore, in Judaism, it is the young who need to honor the older generation, who are one generation closer to the perfect creation—Adam haRishon.
Therefore, the pasuk states: “Man, his mother and his father shall he fear; and My Sabbaths he shall observe…” Because what does Shabbos testify? We say it every Friday night: “For in six days Hashem made the Heavens and Earth and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.” [Shemos 31:17] Shabbos testifies that the Almighty created man (and created everything else in the world as well). Therefore, because of that, people must honor their elders. The elders are closer to perfection than the youth. That, says Rav Yaakov, explains the juxtaposition of the directives to fear parents and to observe the Shabbos.
Then Rav Yaakov adds what he once heard from Rav Elchonon Wasserman [1874-1941]: Had Darwin seen the Chofetz Chaim, he would never have said that man evolved from apes and monkeys. Darwin only saw his own kind of people, which led him to erroneously speculate that man descended from apes. Anyone who had ever seen the likes of the great sages of Israel would never have made such a mistake.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Kedoshim is provided below:
- CD# 009 – Prohibition Against Using a Razor
- CD# 052 – Prohibition Against Revenge
- CD# 095 – The Mezonos Roll: Does it Exist?
- CD# 143 – Inviting the Non-Observant to Your Shabbos Table
- CD# 190 – The Prohibition of Negiah
- CD# 236 – The Do’s & Don’ts of Giving Tochacha
- CD# 280 – “Lo Sa’amod Al Dam Re’echa”
- CD# 326 – Mipnei Seiva Takum: Honoring the Elderly
- CD# 370 – Deserts — Do They Require a Brocha?
- CD# 414 – Giving an Injection to One’s Father
- CD# 458 – Giving Tochacha: Private or Public?
- CD# 502 – Kissui HaDam
- CD# 546 – Treating Mitzvos with Respect
- CD# 590 – Sofaik Be’racha
- CD# 634 – The Prohibition of Hating Another Jew
- CD# 678 – Tochacha: Is Ignorance Bliss?
- CD# 722 – Stealing as a Practical Joke
- CD# 766 – Making Shiduchim Among Non-Observant
- CD# 810 – The Prohibition of Hating Another Jew
- CD# 854 – Tatoos: Totally Taboo?
- CD# 898 – Paying the Plumber and the Babysitter
- CD# 943 – Oy! They Shaved My Payos
- CD# 985 – Giving the Benefit of the Doubt – Always?
- CD#1029 – Must a Person Eat Bread in Order to Bentch?
- CD#1074 – Paying for Someone’s Expensive Medical Treatment
- CD#1116 – Eating Before Davening
- CD#1158 – “I Don’t Want You Spending Time With So-and-so”-Must a child listen?
- CD#1202 – A Bracha On Tums? On Listerine Strips? And Other Brachos Issues
- CD#1247 – The Kiruv Workers Dilemma: Inviting Non Shomer Shabbos for a Shabbos Meal
- CD#1289 – Performing Mitvos During the Holocaust
- CD#1290 – “I Don’t Carry In the Eruv, You Do” – Can You Carry My Tallis For Me?
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.