Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
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PARSHAT RE'AYDevarim (Deut.) 11:26-16:17
Haftorah - Isaiah 54:11-55:5
Because we suffered continuous religious persecution since the destruction of our second Temple (in 70 C.E.), the Jews have become tolerant of other religions. However, this was not always the case. In ancient times, the world was very tolerant of others' religions; people thought that gods were territorial, when one left the boundaries of their own gods influence, he entered the confines of new gods. Being tolerant of other religions was a necessary survival technique. One never knew when the gods of another territory would come in handy. What was always important was not to upset the local dieties.
Along came the Jewish people who antagonized the world by preaching that not only was their G-d invisible and all-powerful, but their G-d was the only legitimate G-d. The ancient Jews were not very popular among the nations because they rejected any and all tolerance for the worship of wood, stone and natural phenomenon.
This obsession with the pursuit of religious truth finds its source in this week's Parsha.
"You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are driving away worshiped their gods; on the high mountains and on the hills, and under every leafy tree. You shall break apart their altars; you shall smash their pillars; you shall burn their sacred trees in fire; you shall cut down their carved images; and you shall obliterate their sacred names from that place." (Devarim 12 2-3)
In ancient times, when one nation conquered another nation, it would try not to destroy the vanquished nation's religious sites and objects. The conquering nation often used these edifices (which were usually beautifully constructed and very ornate), for their own purposes. The fact that the nation of Israel had to destroy the Temples, the idols and the religious symbols of the former inhabitants, was a revolutionary concept.
Our Parsha explains that Hashem declared that the seven nations occupying Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) had no right to worship as they pleased.
Eretz Yisrael had to be emancipated from any religious pollutants. Whether conquered or driven out, the non-Jewish resident aliens or wayfarers had no right to worship their gods or practice their religious beliefs while on this holy ground. To make sure that these religious places and symbols did not infiltrate the conquering society, they had to be - "destroyed," "broken apart," "smashed," "burnt," "cut down," and "obliterated." Any and all traces of these artifacts had to be eradicated lest they influence the Jewish population.
But all this destruction had a price. The very next verse reads: "You shall not do this to Hashem, your G-d." (12:4)
Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 - 1105) teaches us three different lessons:
1. Offerings to Hashem can only be presented from the Mishkan (Tabernacle), or later, from the place that Hashem designates (the Temple on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem).
2. It is forbidden to obliterate the name of Hashem. For this reason we do not write His name (G-d) unrestrictedly so that (if the page is thrown away, discarded or desecrated) His name will not be erased.
3. Rashi brings a Sifre (a Halachic Midrashis [interpretation] of the Books of Bamidbar [Numbers] and Devarim) that warns:
"Rabbi Ishmael said: Would one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts? Rather, do not do anything that would CAUSE your religious places TO BE DESTROYED."
Rabbi Ishmael asks if one could imagine Israel doing such a terrible thing.
But in the history of our nation and in the very days of Rabbi Ishmael, such things happened. Our Temple was desecrated by Hellenist Jews bringing in Greek idols and offering non-kosher animals as sacrifices (during the Chanukah period of our history). Rabbi Ishmael knew very well that terrible acts of desecration were committed by the Sadducees during the Roman period. Even recently, in modern Israel, acts of desecration are perpetrated by Jews against Jews and their religious institutions. Rabbi Ishmael, who was martyred by the Romans and whose miserable death was cheered on by Jews who were Roman sympathizers, knew full well what Jews were capable of. How could he say, "Would one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts?"
I found an interesting answer to this question from Rabbi Ya'acov Haber of Melbourne, Australia, who mentions that the first Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) is:
"...if the performance of a Mitzvah will embarrass you (for example, praying Mincha [afternoon prayers] on a public highway, or saying grace at a board meeting, perhaps sporting a Kippa [skull-cap] at your place of work), you should still do it.
However, the Mishna B'rurah [an updated version of the code - written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagen, 1838-1933] quotes the Beit Yosef [Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, 1488-1575] as saying that, '...one should not go out of their way to antagonize people even in the performance of a Mitzvah (for example, deliberately praying Mincha on a public highway when it is unnecessary), since that will give one's personality the characteristic of Chutzpa (insolence) [in the words of the Bait Yosef] Yikneh B'nafsho Midat Ha'Azut (one's soul will acquire the characteristic of insolence), which will then be used for less than noble purposes.' " (Reachings - Talks on Torah, page 172)
What Rabbi Haber means is if one performs Mitzvot either in an antagonizing manner or specifically to antagonize, then that behavior will continue in non-Mitzvah situations which will be destructive.
When I lived in Israel, I served in the Israeli Army reserves. During my short basic training (I was 35 years old, married with 3 children and established in business) I served with other immigrants from similar backgrounds and ages. Clearly one-third of our group was religious and many were from the "ultra-orthodox" camp.
I began noticing that the more physically challenging and strenuous our training got, the more our sophisticated and personally disciplined group began to act in a boorish manner. Our characters began to change, we began using rough and profane language, and sometimes we behaved in a manner that would have been unacceptable in polite society. I realized that in civilian life, we suppress certain feelings, desires and forces, but in the army those very forces are encouraged and even relied upon. The increase in physical activity and extreme conditions had a powerfully negative effect on us. As civilized human beings and religious Jews, we were forced to keep ourselves in check, otherwise we were capable of Chutzpa (unbecoming behavior).
This is what Moshe was saying to us. Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel) will spend considerable time conquering the land and making it suitable for Jewish existence. In the process, we might become crass and boorish, which would make us insensitive to one another.
In the post Holocaust era, Am Yisrael also had to lift itself up out of the ashes. A state had to be founded, and wars unfortunately had to be fought.
The battles for independence were conducted in the Sinai desert, the Galilee and on the West Bank. But there were other battles that Am Yisrael also fought, spiritual battles in America and in the Soviet Union, on campuses in Berkeley and Jerusalem, in the suburbs of our great cities and in the outposts of Siberia. Our leadership spoke about tolerance and acted without, decried injustice and meted out inequity. We expounded community and acted as segregationists. And today Eretz Yisrael has become our battleground for self-righteous self-centeredness.
It is one thing to understand a problem and another to rectify it. That is the real Tikkun Olam (world rectification) that very few of us are attempting. We must demand dialogue among our Rabbis and lay leaders. When we use these hidden and subdued forces within us they take a toll on how we think and how we behave. Our very souls have become inundated with self-righteous insolence and we aren't even aware of it.
Moshe is warning us to be very careful with the use of necessary force. While it was imperative to destroy the idols and the holy places of the Canaanite nations, he cautioned us that those forces could also be used against each other and against Hashem. Even today, as we battle for our homeland and for the very souls of our brethren, we must use extreme caution. Otherwise, the results can be tragic.
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
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