Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Nitzavim Vayelech 5777

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Deciding What Parts of the Torah We Like

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

In inducting Israel into the brit or covenant with G-d, a covenant which consists of Torah and Mitzvoth, Moses warns his people against one kind of sinner whom he regards as particularly noxious.

In chapter 29 verse 17 we read:

יז) פֶּן יֵשׁ בָּכֶם אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה אוֹ מִשְׁפָּחָה אוֹ שֵׁבֶט אֲשֶׁר לְבָבוֹ פֹנֶה הַיּוֹם מֵעִם יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵינוּ לָלֶכֶת לַעֲבֹד אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם פֶּן יֵשׁ בָּכֶם שֹׁרֶשׁ פֹּרֶה רֹאשׁ וְלַעֲנָה

17. Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turns away this day from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that bears gall and wormwood;

There is a description of two different people, first the idolater and then the poison root.

Regarding the latter category the Torah is particularly harsh in terms of punishment for this ideology.

19. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.

20. And the Lord shall mark him off for evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the Torah;

What could be so terrible? What do you have to do or believe to deserve this?

The Torah tells us what this attitude is:

יח) וְהָיָה בְּשָׁמְעוֹ אֶת דִּבְרֵי הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת וְהִתְבָּרֵךְ בִּלְבָבוֹ לֵאמֹר שָׁלוֹם יִהְיֶה לִּי כִּי בִּשְׁרִרוּת לִבִּי אֵלֵךְ לְמַעַן סְפוֹת הָרָוָה אֶת הַצְּמֵאָה

18. And it should come to pass, when he hears the words of this curse, that he blesses himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart, to add drunkenness to thirst;

If this refers to someone who is not an idolater perse but who is actually rejecting the Torah and will go his own way then I might understand the consequence or punishment, but I do not understand why this person is any more a poison root than the idolater. Why not simply write the idolater of the one who rejects the Torah?

Add to that the fact that this seems to be a person who says this in their heart, but does not necessarily leave the Jewish people.

That seems to be more in line with the imagery of a root, which is not seen with a casual glance as it remains below the surface, yet has the power to destroy the entire garden.

So who is this person?

The Netziv, and this is a great piece offers two possibilities:

  • He suggests that this is the person who believes in nothing at all and that is worse than the idolater who at least might still believe in some sort of justice and legal system.
  • Then he suggests that even worse than that is the one who suggests that the Torah was only given to remove us from idolatry. You might agree that the Torah was given and you accept it but you believe that it was only given to move us away from AZ. This says the Netziv is by far the worst.

Why is that worse than not accepting the Torah at all? Because the idolater or the one who rejects all of the mitzvoth is a clear danger and we would not be swayed by them. In terms of their specific action, bad, but in terms of them affecting others- they are not the poison root. The poison root is still in the garden, and it has the power to undermine all that we believe in. For the Netziv, suggesting that the Torah is not the ultimate moral code and belittling it in the people’s eyes is a poison. It is a great piece although I am not sure how he reads that into though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.

The author of “Ha-Ketav ve’ha-Kabbalah” offers an answer which makes the passage of the Torah relevant directly to the situation of modern man. He sees in the response of the man, described as a “poison root,” to the commandment of the covenant, an attitude which is remarkably and unfortunately contemporary.  Hearing the various duties imposed by G-d upon Israel as obligatory, this individual does not reject them all out of hand. He is rather, selective; He will accept whatever appeals to his conscience and his reason. Ki bisherrirut libi elekh – after all, he says, I have a good heart, a healthy conscience, and a passably intelligent mind; therefore, if a Mitzvah can be explained to me rationally, if you can demonstrate to ne why I ought to observe it, then I will accept and practice it . But what is not comprehensible, what is unexplained and irrational according to my own understanding- that I cannot accept. For that goes against my grain, it causes inner conflicts for me. It gives me no peace of mind when I do something the reason for which I do not fully comprehend. Shalom yihyeh li – I prefer to be at peace with myself, not to feel that I am being a hypocrite for performing those mitzvoth for which the taamei ha-mitzvoth are not clear to me* And this sort of individual, the Torah tells us, is a poison root indeed!

The reason for the harsh epithet for this person is not the ludicrousness of his demand. It is that by differentiating – in faith and value and practice – between those commandments which he understands and those he does not, he is effectively –destroying all of Torah. For, despite its vast respect for reason and the intellect – and no religion is as comprehensive in its emphasis on intellect and study as is our tradition – Judaism insists that G-d judges man, and it is not for man to judge G-d. Man must answer to the Almighty; the Torah need not justify itself to man. 

Surely we believe that is of great value to study and probe and attempt to understand the word of God, but there must be an underlying assumption of acceptance even if we don’t understand. You may grapple, you might even struggle, but you may not judge and reject!

If it is for man to judge each word of Torah, then this is in effect a repudiation of the authenticity of Torah, for it questions the fact that it is G-d who gave it and that is the end of Judaism.

The lure of pure rationality, the lure of being able to not accept those commandments or ideas that we are not comfortable with is great and it makes this type of person a poison root. That certainly is one of the great temptations and challenges facing the modern orthodox world today.

We stand before God on RH and accept his Kingship. Part of that acceptance is a recognition of the limitations of our minds and an acceptance of the Torah in its totality, that which we understand and that which we don’t understand.