TORAH FOR THE NATIONS
The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people
Re'eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
The first three portions of the book of Deuteronomy may be seen as the introductory section of Moses' closing discourses to Israel prior to his death. The main focus of this section, which we concluded in last week's portion, is on the fundamentals of faith, love and fear of God.
In our present portion of RE'EH, Moses embarks upon a detailed review and exposition of the entire Torah law code. This continues in the two following portions and the first section of the third (up to Deut. 26:15), after which Moses gives his closing reproofs, warnings and blessings, which take up the remainder of Deuteronomy.
The central pillar of the entire Torah code is "to know that there exists the First Existent, and He brought into being all that exists, and all the existents in the heavens and on earth and all that is in between exist only in virtue of His existence." (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Foundations of the Torah, 1:1). To know HaShem is the first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2).
The second commandment is the logical corollary of the first: All idolatry - the worship of any of HaShem's creations, be it an angel, sphere, star, or any other created being - is prohibited, even if the worshipper knows that HaShem is the God and intends to serve this created being as if to give honor to HaShem (Exodus 20:3-5; Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 2:1; see Torah for the Nations commentary on Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35, Idolatry and the power of Repentance .)
It is with the strict prohibition against idolatry that Moses begins his exposition of the Torah code in our portion, which contains several different commandments aimed at destroying all relics of idolatry and preventing it from taking root.
1. On entry into their land, Israel were to destroy completely all idolatrous sites, altars, monuments and graven images (Deut. 12:2-3). In their own land, the people of Israel are commanded to pursue and destroy all traces of idolatry, but they are not enjoined to do so in other lands (Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 7:1).
2. It is forbidden to inquire how idolaters worship their gods so as not to imitate them and thereby become ensnared (Deut. 12:30-31).
3. It is forbidden to listen to a false prophet who tells the people to follow other gods, even if he gives signs and performs miracles. The false prophet must be executed (Deut. 13:2-6).
4. One may not even listen to one's own blood brother, son, daughter, wife or dearest friend, let alone anyone else, if they seek to seduce one to idolatry. The inciter must be executed (Deut 13:7-12).
5. Where a majority of a city have been led astray into idolatry, all who took part in idol-worship must be put to the sword, and the entire city with all the people's possessions must be burned, never to be rebuilt (Deut. 13:13-19).
The very severity of the penalties for idolatry indicates just how serious a transgression it is. Yet this cannot justify zealots intoxicated with what they imagine to be their passionate love of God in feeling entitled and obliged to uproot and destroy everything they consider idolatrous. In our time we see almost daily reports of attacks and terrorist atrocities directed by members of various radical groups against synagogues, churches, mosques and temples belonging to anyone whom they consider idolatrous. Even the 9/11 attack on the New York World Trade Center, which claimed the lives of thousands of innocent citizens, was justified by certain fanatics as a "strike against idolatry".
But the truth is that the Torah enjoins the greatest caution in the practical application of the laws against idolatry, which is and must be subject to the authority of the Sanhedrin - the Supreme Court of Torah law - and, in the case of the gentile nations, to duly constituted Noahide courts of law (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 9:14).
The very great caution with which we are to examine and investigate reports of possible breaches of the prohibition against idolatry is emphasized in our portion in the case of commandment relating to the idolatrous city, where the Torah says:
"If you hear that in one of your cities. certain base men have gone forth and drawn away the inhabitants. then you shall inquire and investigate and ask diligently , and if the matter is true and certain. you shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city".
The Torah uses an almost identical expression in next week's Torah portion, in the case of a man or a woman who goes and worships idols:
And if you are told or hear about this, then you shall inquire diligently , and if the matter is true and certain. you shall bring forth that man or woman. that they die.
In each of the above two passages, the Hebrew word for "inquire" is VEDORASHTA. Besides these two passages, this Hebrew word appears in only one other place in all the Five Books of Moses - also in next week's portion, where we are commanded to consult the Sanhedrin and inquire about all legal questions that we ourselves are not competent to determine:
If a matter of judgment arises that is too hard for you. you must get up and go. and come to the priests, the Levites and to the judge that will be in those days, and you shall inquire , and they shall declare to you the sentence of judgment."
It is noteworthy that the legal requirements that would make an idolatrous city liable to destruction are so stringent that in actual fact, there was never a case where this law was put into effect, and nor will there ever be, as the Torah sages explicitly stated in the Talmud (Bavli, Sanhedrin 71a).
"If so," they asked, "why was this portion written in the Torah?" The sages answered: "Inquire and receive a reward!" (ibid.). In other words, our paramount duty is to study and internalize these Torah laws.
We see that the intent of the Torah is not that laymen and zealots should superficially read some texts and then furiously and indiscriminately rush to take the law into their own hands. Only the Sanhedrin or a duly constituted gentile Noahide court established in accordance with Moses' Torah is competent to determine what is or is not idolatry and where, if at all the death penalty applies.
The obligation of regular citizens is not to try to police the world but to inquire, investigate and study the Torah in order to constantly deepen and enhance their personal fulfillment of God's commandments, and to peacefully propagate among those around them the joyous Torah path and the love of HaShem, the One True God.
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