Warnings to Help Us Stay in the Fold of God’s Service

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

While reminding the Jewish people they are entering a covenant with God, Moshe Rabbenu worries there might be among them some thinking “I will be safe when I follow my willful heart,” 29;18. Admitting he is explaining derech derash, in a more homiletical way [more likely reacting to issues of his time], Meshech Hochmah starts off with Sifrei’s reading of Devarim 11;15.

The verse warned what would happen if ve-sartem min ha-derech la-lechet la’avod elohim aherim, most easily translated “you shall stray from the path to go worship other powers,” the worshipping other powers seemingly the content of the straying from the path.

Sifrei instead said if you leave the path, then you will come to worship of powers other than God, implying there is some other “path” whose leaving brings the consequence of falling into idolatry.

Too Easy Being ‘Frum

Meshech Hochmah says he knows those who denigrate the ease of closing one’s eyes to the temptations of the world, putting sufficient boundaries around one’s wrongful appetites to avoid them, and filling one’s time with Torah, prayer, and praise of God. That’s the easy way out, to cling to Hashem!

[Such people are wrong in their essential claim, too. It’s never easy, it’s a question of which challenges one chooses to face. Those who wall off the temptations of the world have avoided one set of challenges. But that’s not Meshech Hochmah’s point.]

They say I’m best proving my devotion to God if I mix with the world, in the ways I want to (the sherirut libo, following his willful heart, of the verse), yet still hold fast to proper awe/ fear, keeping my connection to God deep in my heart. (He gives the examples of mixing in the streets and markets, and having yihud, being alone with women prohibited to the man in question).

The Torah gives its view of their idea when it says “lest there is one among you… I will be safe.”

Entering the Lion’s Den

Such people often go on to justify developing appetites for prohibited items (he names pig, which I think shows how Jewishly he thought, because pig is only inherently disgusting if one retains an allegiance to tradition’s view of it).

People from a fully traditional society who wish to mix more with non-Jewish world can choose to leave, but they might also seek ways to stay and explain their choices. Meshech Hochmah is referring to people in the latter group, except his description makes it hard to know if he was being fair to them.

Those who today consider themselves Modern or Centrist Orthodox (or Dati Leumi and/or Hardal) do not claim there is a value in exposing oneself to danger; they see other values (a greater understanding of God’s world, ability to impact events, range of options for how to contribute) and think the exposure to danger worth the price.

[There is a famous story about a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s who worried about the dangers in studying philosophy, and consulted with his rebbe. Supposedly, R. Soloveitchik told him there are dangers in flying but we take airplanes anyway. And when this student chose a not-so-traditional path, he years later sent a message back to his rebbe that the plane had crashed.

The idea we should not deliberately court spiritual danger comes up in the area of repentance, too, because the highest form of repentance is to be in the exact same position and resist the sin. Some people wondered whether it was therefore worth engineering the situation to be faced with the same temptation. I believe the consensus was a resounding no.]

The People Meshech Hochmah Knew

The comment leaves us three options: Meshech Hochmah knew people who claimed they were becoming more involved in the world to test themselves, fully intent on staying faithful to God and halachah. If so, they were mistaken about how Judaism views the issue, endangering themselves in error.

Possibly, Meshech Hochmah was exaggerating their view. Possibly, such people had other reasons to be more involved with the non-Torah world, to live in ways other than solely involved in Torah study and observance, and Meshech Hochmah was not portraying them accurately [either because he misunderstood them, thought they were being disingenuous, or naïve, did not realize whatever they were saying was tantamount to how he phrased it. Or, a last option, maybe there were being disingenuous, said these were their motives, when they actually just wanted to enjoy the world.

Whatever the truth, Meshech Hochmah clearly believed staying secluded in one’s own world was the safest and necessary way to live.

Individual and Tribal Punishment

29;20 says God will separate the sinner we have been discussing—the one who decides to follow his willful heart,—from all the tribes of Israel. Meshech Hochmah notes that in Vayikra 26;44, God promised never to abandon or reject them fully, a limitation not in sight in the tochacha of Ki Tavo.

[Ramban suggested the two referred to the two exiles of the Jewish people, the first limited to seventy years, the second continuing until we merit it.] Meshech Hochmah suggests the first was about tribes, whom Baba Batra 115b says will never be destroyed, and individuals, who can be. The Torah here wanted individuals to know the consequences of their choices can be significantly worse for them than for communities, because of communities’ more unbreakable connection with God.

The Good Is Natural and Inexpensive

The last comment I chose from this brief parsha begins with a claim Rambam (and perhaps others before him) made about the physical world. In Meshech Hochmah’s version, God gave us what was most necessary most easily, hence mother’s milk for a baby, who has the most desperate need for nutrition, and/or air for all of us, both in reach with no effort at all.

Water is slightly less necessary, and therefore requires some work, although not much. [This is not his topic at all, but notice how he assumed water was largely easily available, when many parts of the world today—including in the “developed” world—struggle with water concerns. It reminds me of a prophecy in Zechariah we read every Sukkot, but that’s really too far afield.]

Food is less necessary; we can go three days without, the reason it takes even more effort. Basic food, however, is accessible. [I would think to say here, too, our “modern” world does not bear out his view, since there is starvation in many areas. Except I once read Three Famines, where Tom Keneally argued—I believe research since agrees—famine in the past two centuries has been a political rather than agricultural matter. Food for thought.]

Basic food was available, but people decide they need more than the basic, they need excess, which does require great effort, and once one becomes accustomed to it feels necessary. [For example: how much does a Jew have to earn to make a basic living? And how much of that is truly necessary, how much is what we have chosen to make necessary? Not simple questions, but Meshech Hochmah is saying we can come to feel it is hard to achieve basic necessities because we have a poor definition of basic and of necessities.]

The Intellectual Good is Natural and Intuitive

He now translates the idea to character and worldview, a step I don’t know of Rambam having made. A person who lives well, desires to do the right and good, seeks to distance him/herself from wronging anyone else, financially or by having an affair with a man’s wife (his example!), will find him/herself wanting to do what is good, naturally.

After death, the soul separates from the body and returns to its natural state of wanting to do what is good, the reason Ta’anit 11a says souls testify against us at the Day of Judgment.  Naturally, our souls would lead us to do well; we pervert them (by giving in to the physical, he is saying).

Intellectually as well, it all starts with shoring up our certainty of God’s having created the world (Meshech Hochmah offers the idea of the world being too ordered not to have been created, just like if we enter a house where the table has been set, we are sure someone set it. The world well-organized should convince us there is a Creator, the way tradition said Avraham found his way to monotheism).

It is obvious, the reason Shabbat 55a says the seal of God is truth, God’s Name is engraved in Creation, any reasonable look at Creation should lead us to acknowledge God. From there, he also assumes the Noahide laws are intuitive, as did Rambam in his Mishnah commentary.

We Get In Our Own Way

He knows as well as we do that plenty of people deny God. In his view, it is always a matter of competing desires, as it was in the physical realm. For belief and/or the intellect, philosophy is the main competing factor. He argues the Avot found the way to the height of intellectual achievement, and were rewarded with direct information from God.

It is why 30;10 says we will obey God’s Voice, to observe all the mitzvot when we return to God with all our hearts and souls. We might have thought the two clauses were separate, “when you hearken to God’s Voice…when you repent,” describe the same thing.

Meshech Hochmah instead assumes the second part of the verse clarifies the first part, we will find ourselves obeying God fully when we return to God, set aside all competing claims to our attention, physical or intellectual.

Then it will be easy. [My memory is that R. Yehuda Parnes, in whose shiur I spent a very productive year when I returned from Israel, taught us this idea from the Derashot Ha-Ran, a sefer to which he introduced me, and on which I spent much productive time, including in this forum.

From my vantage point today, both points resonate, although they can be taken too far. It is certainly true that it is easier to support a basic lifestyle than a more elaborate one, calling for careful thought about which luxuries to import into one’s life; it is also certainly true that the less we indulge the physical, the easier it becomes to avoid temptation.

Intellectual struggles do seem to me to have a lot of that as well. When people say they find it hard to believe in God, they often mean that unless an idea is proven to them in the way they choose to evaluate proofs, they are unwilling to commit. They assume, I think, Avraham just wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize he hadn’t proven God exists, when the tradition only says Avraham became fully convinced God exists.

Those today who point to our understanding of how the world developed still have no explanation for where the laws of physics came from, or what caused the Big Bang, and so on. Their refusal to believe in God isn’t a logical claim, it is a refusal to believe in what has not been proven to them. They will dismiss claims of prophecy, because they have never seen a prophecy, and so on.]

In those senses, Meshech Hochmah has hit the mark, their other intellectual commitments are stopping them from committing to belief, are, God forbid, a reason they will abandon service of God.

Nitzavim showed Meshech Hochmah people who took on temptation as a way to show their commitment, how individual sinners incur worse consequences than whole tribes, and located the start of temptation or disbelief in a Jew’s taking on more than the basics of life. Because the basics are cheap and lead us in correct directions. 

About Gidon Rothstein

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