Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) The Reality of Depravity

This week’s Parsha is a continuation of the speech Moses gave before he died. He reiterates the choice G-d has given the Jewish people, a choice that each generation has made ever since. Will we stay true to Judaism or will we get absorbed in the host nation in which we find ourselves? The fact that we’re still Jewish means that somewhere in the not so distant past, our ancestors chose to remain loyal to Judaism. Moses continues his message by adjuring the people to distance themselves from idolatry.
For you are aware how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we passed though the nations whom you passed though. You observed their abominations and their detestable idols, wood and stone, silver and gold. Perhaps there is among you some man, woman, family, or tribe whose heart (i.e. thoughts) strays today from being with HaShem, our G-d, to go and worship the gods of those nations-lest there is among you a root sprouting poison weed and bitter fruit. (Deut. 29:15-17)
The above translation is based on Rashi’s commentary. The literal translation is “You observed their insects and excrement.” Rashi notes that “insects” and “excrement” are epithets for idolatry. The same way that people are repulsed by insects and excrement, so too were the Jews repulsed by the idolatry they saw from the time they were in Egypt until they arrived in the Land of Israel. People bowing to statues and images, and using them to justify their immoral behavior was something Jews found repulsive. This warning is hard to understand because people are not attracted to things they find repulsive.
Why, then, did Moses have to warn the people to avoid idolatry, something they inherently abhorred?
We understand from here that when someone sees negative behavior, even though it’s something they detest, they need to check themselves to make sure there is not someplace in their heart that is drawn to it. If that is the case, seeing the bad behavior might plant a damaging seed in one’s heart, the verse (quoted above) states, a root sprouting poison weed and bitter fruitFor example, most people find insulting someone publicly to be negative behavior. If a person’s son or daughter came home from school with a note saying that their child has been yelling insulting comments at other students publicly, they would be appalled and take appropriate measures. However, what if this parent saw that bad behavior being done to someone the parent hates? All the sudden the identical repulsive behavior is okay because they don’t like the person receiving it. The same behavior that you find detestable has found a place in your heart, a place from which it could grow and influence you.
There’s another layer. When we are exposed to wrong behavior over a period of time, it no longer becomes as repulsive as it used to. Being disloyal to one’s spouse used to be considered abhorrent, even unforgivable but when it becomes a common theme in novels, TV, or movies-the unfulfilled spouse finds love in forbidden places-well, that’s love. Could (s)he be blamed? When we are not willing to identify bad behavior, then it becomes less offensive to us. You might like or even love someone who does things you abhor, but if you don’t recognize depravity, a root sprouting poison weed and bitter fruit might be growing inside you.
What behaviors do you abhor? When have you felt the most hurt by something done to you or a friend? The verses above teach us to be on guard when we see other people doing things we abhor because there might be something inside us that really doesn’t think it’s that bad. If it’s bad for you or your friend, it’s bad to someone you don’t like also-that’s the reality of depravity.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, Sara and I would like to wish everyone a Shana Tova u’metuka-a good and sweet new year. It is hopefully a time of contemplation and personal accounting of one’s goals-especially Jewish goals. The following is an excerpt from a thought-provoking article recently written by Rabbi Benjamin Blech. It can be found on aish.com.
Bucket lists are invariably filled with ideas about travel to places you’ve never been, adventures you’ve never had, people you’ve never met. The common denominator is one idea: “The saddest people who approach death are those with regrets about things left undone.”
But what’s wrong with the way most people think of a bucket list is that far too often its chief concern is the self. It’s trying to figure out what we’ve missed out on in terms of personal enjoyment. Its chief concern is worrying about whether we have fully partaken of the joys this earth has to offer.
Rosh Hashanah shows us another way to think about a bucket list. It’s a list rooted in the realization that all of us are mortal. We have a limited lifespan. One of the most important goals of the High Holy days is to recognize that we are put here on earth for a purpose. Our lives carry a mission which represents our reason for having been created.
Preparing for the High Holy days entails identifying the reason for our presence in the world – what it is that we contribute to society at large, to our people, to our families and even to God. It isn’t our wealth but our self-worth which represents our best claim for continued life and blessing. It’s knowing that our lives made a difference, whether we played a role, no matter how small, in helping to make this a better world.
May we all identify the unique role we play in this world. If you don’t have a unique role, G-d would not have created you.
Shana Tova.
(Sources: Chidushei HaGriz (stencil) as brought in m’Shulchan Gavoah)