POISONOUS SELF-DELUSIONS

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHA

 PARASHAT NITZAVIM

 

POISONOUS SELF-DELUSIONS

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.        INTRODUCTION

 

The beginning of our parasha, Parashat Nitzavim, provides the dramatic conclusion to Moshe Rabbeinu’s listing of the blessings and curses that accompany the new covenant at Arvot Moav.  This covenant, Moshe informs the Jewish people, is binding on all – not only those present, but on their descendants and on all generations to come.  Confronted with such a powerful claim, it is no wonder that some members of the nation would attempt, even quietly, to free themselves, even mentally, of the obligations that Moshe Rabbeinu placed upon them.  To these people, Moshe states:

 

Lest there should be among you, man or woman, family or tribe, whose heart turns away even this day from Hashem our God, to go and serve these nations' gods; lest there be among you a root that bears gall and wormwood;

And it shall come to pass, when he hears the words of this curse, that he will bless himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall have peace (ki) I am walking in my heart’s stubbornness, the watered shall be swept away with the dry.'

Hashem will not desire to forgive him, but instead Hashem’s anger will be kindled against that man, and all the curses written in this book shall lie upon him, and Hashem will blot out his name from under heaven;

And Hashem shall single him out for evil from all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses written in this book of the law. 
(Devarim 29:17-20)

 

The Ramban immediately identifies to whom Moshe is addressing his warning:

 

[The Torah lists two groups of individuals:]  The one “whose heart turns away even this day from Hashem our God” – who has already succumbed to idolatry and steadfastly believes in it, and second, the “root that bears gall and wormwood,” that will eventually produce noxious and bitter fruit.  The latter refers to “him that is not here day” (previously, v. 14), for the father is the root and the son the shoot that grows forth from it. 

 

The metaphor of the poisonous root serves to impress upon the listeners the dangers found within evil thoughts; even if the person may shrug them off, arguing that he has committed no wrongdoing, Moshe argues that their eventual outcome will as surely lead the person and his descendants to a bitter end, as if the person flagrantly sinned at that moment.

 

B.        WHAT THOUGHTS LURK IN THE HEARTS OF MAN

 

What evil thoughts will lead the person to ruin?  What warrants his self-congratulations and grants him a sense of security?  We will bring a sampling of the commentators' understanding of the metaphors in the section:

 

The Ibn Ezra:

 

In my opinion, the word sefot (“swept away”) means addition (see Yeshayahu 30:1).  Accordingly, the verse means, “I shall have peace, though I walk in my heart’s stubbornness, because I live in the virtue of the saintliness of the righteous, for they are many, and I am but one individual sinner."  Therefore, Moshe warns, “Hashem will not be willing to pardon him, but then Hashem’s anger shall be kindled."

 

The Ramban:

 

When he hears others being the subject of these curses he will bless himself in his thoughts and say in his heart:  I will not be affected by all these when I follow my heart’s desires.  Or perhaps, he means to say that he will not be affected by the curses (‘I shall have peace’), because (not ‘though’) I do not accept the oath, walking in the stubbornness of my heart all my life.  However, he cannot sin with impunity and escape Hashem’s anger, since he has willy-nilly entered into the Covenant with all of the Jewish people.  

The meaning of ‘the watered shall be swept away with the dry’ is to add the sated to the still unsated … by following the stubbornness of his heart, he will not be satisfied with the normal desires of man, the ones man is (normally) thirsty for, but will hanker after abnormal ones - the ones that normally man has no desire for but is sated with.  The word le-ma’an here has no idea of conscious purpose, but … simply reflects the automatic result and consequence.  The concept here is that “because I follow the stubbornness of my heart the result will be that satisfied (abnormal) desires will be added to the thirsty (normal) ones.

 

The Akeidat Yitzchak:

 

He deludes himself with the argument:  Hashem only destroys and punishes those who acknowledge the Torah but neglect in its observance.  “I shall have peace” and need therefore have no fear of the curses befalling me, for I walk in the stubbornness of my heart to repudiate the whole basis of the Torah … and should you say that misfortune will overtake me, surely I dwell in the midst of my people and I am bound to share the same bounty and guardianship which Hashem deals out to my fellow Jews.

This is the meaning of “the watered shall be added with the dry” – A person has two adjoining fields, one “thirsty” always needing water and the other “watered," always having enough.  The thirsty or dry field is bound to get the benefit of the watering of the adjoining field, even if the farmer does not intend to water the thirsty or dry field.  This heretic thought similarly – though Hashem may not intend to bless (watering) him with the bounty of His blessings, he must receive them, willy-nilly enjoy them as part of the community which receives them.  The phrase “I shall have peace” implies two things: (1) the excluding himself from the community in respect of entering into the covenant and curses, and (2) saving him from retribution because he is part of the community.

 

We see that the commentators argue over two points: the interpretation of the word ki (opening the phrase ‘in my heart’s stubbornness’), and the understanding of the phrase ‘the watered shall be swept away/added with the dry.'  The Ibn Ezra understands ki as though – possibly implying a subconscious acknowledgement that the Torah is true.  The Ramban gives two interpretations of the word ki – when and because.  In the first interpretation, no rationale or motivation is given why this sinner chooses to ignore the curses.  Instead, he simply ignores them.  In the second reading, the person already intellectualizes his refusal to keep the commandments.  He rationalizes that since he has disassociated himself from the community, he is therefore released from its obligations.

 

The Akeidat Yitzchak interprets the word ki as the Ramban, accepting that we are dealing with an individual who believes that since he repudiates everything, he is not bound by the curses.  However, in his interpretation of the phrase ‘the watered shall be swept away/added with the dry,' the Akeidat Yitzchak is much closer to the Ibn Ezra.  Unlike the Ramban’s psychological interpretation of the nature of deviant behavior and unrestrained behavior, which even the Ramban admits does not occur due to conscious forethought and motive, the Akeidat Yitzchak’s metaphor of the two fields explains how people justify their receiving blessing along with the community, despite not fulfilling the obligations that binds the community together.

 

C.        THE MODERN COMMENTATORS AND THE SINNER’S INTERNAL WORLD

 

In all of the above interpretations, the commentators assume that the peace referred to by the individual meant immunity from any retribution for his failure to observe the commandments.  Commentators that are more recent discuss a different form of peace – the inner peace and tranquility of one whose conscience is undisturbed. 

 

The Ketav Ve-Ha-Kabbala

 

This refers to the person who is thoroughly corrupt in fundamentals.  When he hears the words of this curse … he will say, “Truthfully, there are many precepts which mystify me and which cause me nothing but struggle and heart-searching.  I observe them only sporadically, because they are irrational and I am unable to grasp their logic.  Therefore, I shall only observe those things that appeal to my reason and what my intellect will accept.  In this way, without inner struggle, I shall have peace. 

 

R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch

 

In Rabbinic Hebrew, sharir (the root of the word ‘sharirut’ – stubbornness) expresses firmness, legality.  This is the confirmation of his own heart.  He only goes in paths that are ratified, not by God, but by what his heart recognizes as legal. 

 

The Netziv

 

[The metaphor of a] ‘root that bears gall and wormwood’ does not refer to a person who worships idols, but even more corruptly and bitterly, he chooses not to worship anything at all.  He rejects totally the idea that there is justice and Divine providence, for he believes … that man is no more than an animal, who is to follow the urgings of his heart.  Unlike the person who worships idols, in order to satiate his lusts, but does not force his beliefs on others, the person who bears such corrupt ideas cannot help but attempt to spread his vile heresies to justify his own behavior.

 

What distinguishes the later commentators’ interpretations is their common emphasis on the internal world of the sinner that Moshe Rabbeinu was addressing.  Echoing within their words are the winds of 19th century thought, during which all three lived, with whose ideas they constantly wrestled.  The need for rational confirmation of the commandments, the establishment of the individual’s judgment as a higher value than obedience to an all-powerful deity, and the open expression of militant atheism (which is still evident today, based on the bestseller lists) were all intellectual challenges that modernity brought in its wake.  As the timeless expression of our faith, these commentators saw within the Torah’s words guidance and direction for their turbulent times.  Everyone aspires to some level of tranquility and peace, whether from external consequences or intellectual upheaval.  However, as the commentators point out, despite the best attempts by man to avoid the challenges posed by the religious life, ultimately, a person must learn to grasp and wrestle them.