How Hard It Can Be To Get Back to Basics

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Abomination of Worshipping Powers Other Than Hashem

דברים פרק לב:טז יַקְנִאֻ֖הוּ בְּזָרִ֑ים בְּתוֹעֵבֹ֖ת יַכְעִיסֻֽהוּ:

Devarim 32;16: They incite His jealousy with strangers, anger Him with abominations.

Rashi, based on Sifrei, took “abominations” to refer to homosexual relations and to witchcraft, both of which the Torah calls to’evah, abomination. Ramban disagrees, because he sees this entire Song as directed at avodah zarah, worship of anything other than Hashem. That, too, is described as to’evah, particularly the Molech practice of passing one’s children through the fire.

At one level, Ramban is disagreeing with Rashi about the technical issue of whether the two halves of the line address different issues or repeat the same one. More interestingly to me, he’s saying Ha’azinu is about one central flaw, that the key to success for Jews is avoiding just one error, that of worshipping any power other than Hashem. If only we avoid that, he seems to think, we’d be largely ok (and yet we have not avoided that, repeatedly in Jewish history).

Women’s Contribution to This Downfall

דברים פרק לב:יט וַיַּ֥רְא יְקֹוָ֖ק וַיִּנְאָ֑ץ מִכַּ֥עַס בָּנָ֖יו וּבְנֹתָֽיו:

Devarim 32;19: Hashem saw and rejected them, because of the anger [created by] his sons and daughters.

Scripture doesn’t usually single out women, it usually encompasses them in the word “sons” or “men.” Ramban says the Torah changed its practice here as a hint that women would be particularly egregious actors in the generation of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash [when Ramban sees a hint in Scripture to later events, I don’t think he means it was fore-ordained. I think he thinks that Scripture has many insights into possible futures and as history unfolds, we find those that were brought to fruition by our accomplishments or misdeeds].

Yirmiyahu 44;15 tells us that the men who fled to Egypt (against Yirmiyahu’s prophecy, a terribly sad story worth rereading for its many contemporarily applicable lessons) knew their wives were offering incense to heavenly bodies, and it was those women, two verses later, who brazenly refused to accept Yirmiyahu’s admonition, who insisted on continuing to sacrifice to the hosts of heaven.  Yechezkel, too, has verses that identify women as the main players in acts of idolatry.

Ramban doesn’t theorize as to why, he just reminds us that at least in that generation, the women were implicated in this central sin as much or more than the men.

Our Many Exiles

דברים פרק לב:כא הֵ֚ם קִנְא֣וּנִי בְלֹא־אֵ֔ל כִּעֲס֖וּנִי בְּהַבְלֵיהֶ֑ם וַאֲנִי֙ אַקְנִיאֵ֣ם בְּלֹא־עָ֔ם בְּג֥וֹי נָבָ֖ל אַכְעִיסֵֽם:…(כו) אָמַ֖רְתִּי אַפְאֵיהֶ֑ם אַשְׁבִּ֥יתָה מֵאֱנ֖וֹשׁ זִכְרָֽם:

Devarim 32;21: They incited Me to jealousy with a no-god, angered Me with their worthless items, I will make them envious by a no-people, with an ungrateful nation I will cause them anger… Verse 26: I said I would scatter them, cause their memory to cease from among people.

Ramban identifies the “no-nation” as the Kasdim (the Babylonians), whom Yeshayahu 23;13 says were never considered a full-fledged nation, that Hashem only caused them to be elevated to nationhood so they could be a vehicle of punishment. The goy naval, ungrateful nation, which forgets kindnesses done for it is Esav [Ramban doesn’t highlight it, but this is the third use of that word in this Song. Perhaps this hints at how important it is for us to remember and notice when good has been done to and for us], who doesn’t [choose to] remember the pact he made with his brother Ya’akov.

Then Ramban adds “this hints to the two exiles,” meaning that the Babylonians were the Kasdim and the Romans the descendants of Esav. Those are common identifications, but remind us that Ramban thought (he also said it when commenting on the tochacha, the long list of punishments predicted in both Bechukkotai and Ki Tavo) that Hashem laid out the course of history for us ahead of time, should we fail to live up to the minimal standards of avoiding avodah zarah.

Sadly, and so it was.

More Than Exile

דברים פרק לב:כו אָמַ֖רְתִּי אַפְאֵיהֶ֑ם אַשְׁבִּ֥יתָה מֵאֱנ֖וֹשׁ זִכְרָֽם:  (כז) לוּלֵ֗י כַּ֤עַס אוֹיֵב֙ אָג֔וּר פֶּֽן־יְנַכְּר֖וּ צָרֵ֑ימוֹ פֶּן־יֹֽאמְרוּ֙ יָדֵ֣נוּ רָ֔מָה וְלֹ֥א יְקֹוָ֖ק פָּעַ֥ל כָּל־זֹֽאת:

Devarim 32;26: I said I would scatter them, erase their memory from humanity, Verse 27: Were it not for the anger caused by the enemy, lest the adversary refuse to understand, lest they say our hand triumphed, and Hashem did not do all this.

The word for “scatter” in verse 26 is afeihem, which Sifrei took as a compound of af ei hem, but where are they? Ramban explained that the people would become unknown—their whereabouts and identity—as happened to the Ten Tribes. As for erasing their memory, that’s our current exile, in which the Jews aren’t thought of as a nation at all.

(It bears remembering that before the State of Israel was established, the world at large and many Jews had forgotten that Judaism intends to be both a religion and a nation, a political entity as well as a religious body.)

The next verse tells Ramban we deserved eternal exile for our sins (an example of how Hashem punishes us less than we deserve, in contrast to how we often experience it), which tells him that tamah zechut Avot, the merits of the Patriarchs have been used up (in contrast to what we say in our High Holidays liturgy, a topic to think about as RH and YK are on the horizon).

How Other Nations Help Us

What saves us from that fate is that our being redeemed and restored to Israel is part of sanctifying Hashem’s Name, as Yechezkel 20;41 and 44 pointed out (and as Moshe Rabbenu said earlier in the Torah, when the Jews’ sins threatened them with annihilation).

None of the other nations, at the time of the Giving of the Torah, remembered Hashem’s power or role in the universe. They all had strayed far, denied Hashem’s existence or power, leaving only the Jewish people to stand up for that idea. It was through the Jewish people that Hashem re-inserted Himself into human experience, by performing signs and wonders on their behalf.

Were Hashem to cause the Jews to be permanently forgotten, those lessons would again be lost, and people would return to believing in the powers of the stars and other such idolatries. Since that would defeat the purpose of creation, Hashem will in fact restore the Jews to Israel, whether or not they deserve it, to help humanity get back to the path it was supposed to take [not that Ramban takes it there, but that means that as we watch the restoration of Jews to Israel today—even, soon, a majority of world Jewry—we cannot be sanguine that it says we are or have become good enough to deserve it].

The Sad and Continuing Denial of Non-Jews

The Song then speaks in a way that Ramban takes to be about non-Jews (who were the topic of the previous verses, when Hashem said they were the reason He’d redeem us).

דברים פרק לב:כח כִּי־ג֛וֹי אֹבַ֥ד עֵצ֖וֹת הֵ֑מָּה וְאֵ֥ין בָּהֶ֖ם תְּבוּנָֽה:…   (לב) כִּֽי־מִגֶּ֤פֶן סְדֹם֙ גַּפְנָ֔ם וּמִשַּׁדְמֹ֖ת עֲמֹרָ֑ה…

Devarim 32;28: They are a nation without sense, with no discernment… Verse 32: Their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and the fields of Gomorrah.

Ramban takes the lack of sense or discernment to be the nations’ refusal to spot Hashem’s role in what happened to the Jewish people. Seeing what’s happened to us should have told the whole world that Hashem exists, has expectations of all of us, and the best we can do for our souls is serve Hashem as we are told. The non-Jews refuse to take those lessons, to realize the history of the Jewish people (including our sufferings, where we’ve been much weaker than made rational sense) should demonstrate Hashem’s power and involvement more than anything else.

That’s because their roots are in Sodom and Gomorrah. The Jewish people respond to tragedy by recognizing how they’ve gone wrong and returning to Hashem (at least, that’s how the Book of Judges portrayed it; it was probably true of the Jewish communities Ramban knew as well. Sadly, in our times, many Jews have lost that). Non-Jews, without that historical memory of how to respond to tragedy, reject those lessons, and continue to worship powers other than Hashem.

Lessons of the Song

The Song, in Ramban’s reading, is a lasting testimony, a way for Jews to interpret all that will eventually befall them. It reminds us of Hashem’s many kindnesses in taking us to be His nation, extracting us from Egypt and caring for us in the desert. Ramban adds (as the Song couldn’t) giving us the Land of Israel and much good and wealth.

Our comfort led us to rebel and worship powers other than Hashem, in reaction to which Hashem will punish us, but eventually take vengeance against the nations who were the vehicles of that punishment. They will deserve that because they did not hurt us out of a desire to punish our idolatry, but because we act differently than they do. Had they been responding out of righteous anger at our betrayal of Hashem, Ramban seems to think they would not deserve or receive punishment for their actions.

We, on the other hand, will eventually be redeemed, return to serving Hashem, observing His commandments, and refrain from sacrificing to or worshipping any powers other than Hashem. That didn’t happen in the Second Temple, where promises of this Song (such as that other nations will join us in Hashem’s worship) did not come to fruition.

The last point we have space for is that it does not make repentance a condition. That’s because Hashem might redeem us only for the sake of His Name, to keep humanity from completely forgetting simple truths of how Hashem runs the world. It will be much better if we repent and return (as in the two tochachot), but even if not, the end will be that we’ll get back to Israel, and the non-Jews of the world will come around to accepting that the only way to live successfully is to do what Hashem wants.

About Gidon Rothstein

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