by R. Gidon Rothstein
The Torah really, really wants Jews to know they must worship only Gd. We will focus most our attention on the negative, how bad it is to worship or accept other powers, and how to avoid it. With a bit of what is promised for success at the end.
Acknowledgement Can Be Worse Than It Seems
I think many of us underestimate the Torah’s awareness of the attraction of other forms of belief for many people. Rashi kicks off our reminders, noting the Torah, 11;28, counts following other powers, to worship them, as a complete abandonment of Gd’s ways. More, the Midrash he cites to support the idea phrased itself in terms of ha-modeh be-avodah zarah, acknowledges or concedes the truth of some other worship.
It is a point important enough to reiterate (more than once, but I will restrain myself): a Jew can keep halachah, kalah ke-hamurah, punctilious about the small details as well as larger observances, yet be considered having left “all the path.” Simply by serving or even acknowledging the truth of some other power.
Rashi does not connect them, but I think his note to 12;3 fits this idea as well, where he promotes coining mocking names for places of worship of powers other than Gd (a skill the former President of the United States honed, although not for any worthy purposes). We do not usually descend to the level of name-calling, but Rashi (and R. Akiva in Avodah Zarah) made an exception for avodah zarah, something in such need of being wiped out, we use ordinarily distasteful strategies.
When the Lure Is From Outside
Temptation to such worship or worldviews comes first from non-Jews we encounter, such as those we have just conquered. The verse, 12;30, warns against being drawn towards them after they were destroyed before us, even if we tell ourselves it is to learn ways to worship the One Gd.
Ramban picks up on that last piece, says the verse wants to be sure we know not to worship Gd as they did their gods. The custom of old was to take the best pieces of the conquered culture and absorb them into one’s own. The Torah rejects it because we are supposed to realize the non-Jews commit abominations, such as passing their children through fire in worship of their gods.
He is not quite explicit about why that rules out taking anything from them. He could mean this shows everything they do is an abomination; I find it more likely he meant any culture that allows or ratifies one such abomination is corrupt too thoroughly to imagine we can extract only the good pieces (a lesson of its own on how open to new ideas we should be).
The idea of different kinds of non-Jews, some too “other” for us to engage, sits in the background of Onkelos’ various translations of references to ger, a stranger. In the contexts of giving meat not properly slaughtered to a non-Jew, 14;21, he reads ger as a totav arel, uncircumcised resident. In Vayikra 25;47, where the verse speaks of ger ve-toshav and then ger toshav, he treats the word ger as meaning arel on its own.
He also elsewhere translates nochri as bar amemin, meaning he shows us types of non-Jews, those close enough to our values we can have them reside among us, despite their being uncircumcised, and levels of greater distance up to and including avid adherents of forms of worship that completely contradict belief in the true Gd.
When the Lure Is From a Prophet
Sadly, it is not only non-Jews who can draw us to believe in that which counts as completely leaving Gd. The Torah, 13;2-4, warns we can also have to contend with prophets, who are able to produce remarkable otot and mofetim, and yet need to know they are false prophets.
Otot are predictions, mofetim come where the prophet changes the ordinary workings of the world. For the former, the miracle might also violate the laws of nature, will be called an ot because its primary role is to show the prophet’s ability to predict. And the mofet, for Ramban, does not have to be supernatural. He tells us Yeshayahu’s going barefoot in tattered clothing for three years (Yeshayahu 20;3) was a mofet, because prophets did not usually walk around that way.
The more common version of false prophet, easier to spot, is one who claims to have been sent by any power other than Gd. Sanhedrin 90a suggested the prophet in our passage, however, claims to have been sent by Gd to tell Jews to worship some other power. Although Gd does sometimes send prophets with orders to violate other parts of the Torah temporarily, it would never happen for avodah zarah, worshipping any power other than Gd.
A bit worrisomely, Ramban picks up on the Torah’s calling the sending of this prophet a nisayon, a test from Gd. He takes the idea at face value, seeming to assume Gd in fact told this person to bring this false prophecy (and certainly allowed or empowered the prophet to produce the ot or mofet, the prediction or breach of ordinary conduct).
Our dedication to serving Gd and Gd alone means we rule out any other possibility, regardless of how convincing it seems to us.
When the Lure Is From Loved Ones
If the challenge of other nations or prophets comes from how impressive they are, the next example of one seeking to take us away from Gd focuses on the emotional. The Torah speaks of a close friend or relative, 13;7, who tries to convince us to worship this other power. Rashi notes the Torah speaks of asher ke-nafshecha, who is like your soul, someone very dear to you.
Of course we are not allowed to listen, but the Torah says lo toveh lo, 13;9, a word translated (at least by Sefaria) as “do not assent.” Rashi expects a stronger reaction, thinks lo toveh means do not like or love this mesit, seducer to other worships. We may be obligated to love our fellow Jews, but not this one. This one we have to arrange the punishment (come forward with testimony if we know it), close ourselves off to his/her pleas for forgiveness, make no special efforts to find saving merit in his/her behavior, and the target of the call to worship another power must be the one to execute the death penalty once the court ratifies it.
With a few more examples under our belts, we can profit from repeating ourselves: Parshat Re’eh wants us to be sure to recognize how deep a problem it is to accept any power other than Gd (even alongside Gd), the need to avoid any acknowledgement of such a power, to turn away from lessons from those non-Jews who do acknowledge such a power, and to react extraordinarily harshly to Jews who call for worship of such a power, whether as a navi or as a close friend or relative.
Ramban points out the Torah itself shows the contrast to “going after” other powers when it calls, 12;5, for Jews to “go after” Gd, a phrase Ramban takes to mean to follow Gd’s counsel, to look to Gd alone for the meaning and proper reaction to any events. We build our connection to Gd by making Gd central to how we experience the world.
Along with that, we are to cultivate yir’ah, a word usually translated as fear or awe of Gd. Ramban here thinks it means for Jews to assert their emunah, their certainty of the truth that Gd controls all, can bring life into existence, end it, rewards mitzvah observance, punishes sin.
The verse requires Jews to hearken to Gd’s Voice, for Ramban a matter of listening to prophets. [The contrast bears notice: Jews seem to struggle to resist false prophets, while equally struggling to listen to authentic ones. I think it’s because authentic prophets almost always tell us what we do not wish to hear, but that’s not in Ramban.]
Rashi’s antidote focuses on Torah study. 12;28 says shemor ve-shama’ta, the first of those words usually read in some version of guard or care (e.g., Sefaria has “be careful to heed”). Rashi instead renders it in terms of mishnah, repeat study to be sure we absorb Torah unforgettably. Such study makes it possible we will observe properly, lack of such study makes it impossible, he says.
Onkelos does not explicitly weigh in on the strategies to resist straying from Gd. His translation of 14;21 does give a hint of agreement with Rashi, however. The verse prohibits cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, where Onkelos writes we may not eat basar be-halav, using the Hebrew terms for meat cooked in mother’s milk. In this instance, Onkelos thought the correct simple way to read the text was in light of tradition’s reading of it, as indicating the milk/meat prohibitions as a whole, not only a kid in its mother’s milk.
The Cookie at the End of the Road
Lest we forget this is not all about avoiding punishment or perdition, Rashi to 15;4 and 6 mentions some of the bounty waiting for us should we do it right. The first verse promises there will be no evyon, thoroughly impoverished, among the Jews, a seeming contradiction to 15;11, which says poor people will never cease from the nation.
It is up to us, Rashi says. When we do Gd’s Will, only other nations will have evyonim. When we do not, we too will have evyonim. More than lacking impoverished people, should we fulfill Gd’s Will, we will be only lenders, and only rulers, with no one lending us, no one ruling over us.
Complete independence, financial and political. If only we can muster up the will to do Gd’s Will, and reject any calls to do otherwise.