Nation's Nemesis

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

The Torah is full of mitzvoth that prohibit us from improper behavior, especially from worshiping strange gods and participating in forbidden relationships. Nevertheless, the Torah here offers a non specific admonition: "Speak to Bnei Yisroel and say to them, 'I am Hashem your God. Do not perform the practices of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled; do not perform the practices of the land of Canaan to which I bring you, and do not follow their traditions. Carry out My laws and safeguards..."

Several questions immediately arise. The first question is obviously if these places were so terrible, why put Bnei Yisroel there to begin with, especially, as Rashi says, Egypt and Canaan are singled out as the most depraved of all the nations among whom we would reside. Further, what practices does Hashem want us to avoid; the major ones of idol worship and promiscuity are already covered in other verses and commandments. Are these different practices Hashem want us to avoid?

A famous medrash serving as a metaphor for Bnei Yisroel can be interpreted in multiple ways. The medrash identifies Bnei Yisroel as a rose among the thorns. The rose is Bnei Yisroel among the nations when we are in exile. But the rose is also Bnei Yisroel when we are in our land. When you are in exile, don't adopt the practices of your host nation. But when you are in your own land, don't revert to the practices you witnessed among other nations, for even then we are surrounded by alien cultures. In essence, these verses are a warning for all times. Which begs the questions: Why does Hashem put us into these difficult circumstances to begin with and what "practices" and "traditions" is Hashem referring to?

Rabbi Schlesinger notes that since the laws against idol worship and promiscuity are clearly promulgated, Hashem is referring here not to the sins themselves but to the general culture that leads to this behavior. Reading and watching inappropriate material, while not actively engaging in these activities may lower one's resistance and eventually lead to promiscuity. Therefore, suggests Rabbi Scheinerman, Hashem is warning us to put safeguards in place so that we don't begin the slippery slope that will lead to a complete downfall.

The Chasam Sofer brings this admonition to a completely different level. The Torah here, writes the Chasam Sofer, is not necessarily talking about the negative practices of gentile nations. Certainly they have promulgated codes of law for the proper interactions of society, as Hashem commanded in the seven Noachide laws. However, their laws are meant only to enhance life in this world, whereas Torah law is meant to prepare us for life in the future world, in Olam Haba. We may all be on the same train, following what appear to be the same laws, but our reasons for being on that train (and following these laws) bring us and them to a different destination. As Rabbi Scheinerman notes, their legal system is meant to enhance the material world, to increase ego and self gratification. Torah law is meant to sustain the soul. In fact, continues Rabbi Scheinerman, one can keep all the mitzvoth of the Shulchan Aruch and still be going in the ways of the nations if his motivation is merely rote, to be able to live his life in peace rather than to bring him closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

Our challenge is to take our entire lives, all the actions necessary to live, connect them to Torah and mitzvoth, and thereby elevate them. Hashem is asking us to distance ourselves from their culture, from the focus on physical pleasure devoid of spirituality. On the other hand, Torah offers the solution to all problems. It is the road map to our identity and provides meaning and purpose to our lives. While one may find knowledge and wisdom outside Torah, true joy lies only in Torah.

Egypt is the paradigm of a culture that glorified promiscuity while Canaan was the paradigm for worshiping foreign gods, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkat Mordechai. The yetzer horo for these behaviors is extremely strong. They are based on ego-centrism, of seeing oneself as the center of one's life. In these verses, Hashem is giving us the antidote for this pull. Always remember, He tells us, that I am Hashem your God. If you keep Me at the center of your lives and know that your are a Godly people, you will have the arsenal to fight these powerful influences and overcome these natural passions. How is this effective? If you sense that Hashem is sitting beside you, you would find it inappropriate, for example, to access improper images or read suggestive material in His presence.

But we are still left with the question of why Hashem put us into these cultures to begin with. Would it not have been simpler to keep us insulated in a cocoon in a world of purity?

We can approach this dilemma on several levels. Beginning with the understanding that the world was created in balance and equilibrium, writes the Ner Uziel, Rabbi Milevsky z”l, we can see how the holiness with which Hashem imbued Bnei Yisroel would need to emerge from its opposite, the depravity of Egypt. Similarly, the inherent holiness of the Land of Israel needed to also contain the deep corruption of Canaan in order to achieve that equilibrium imposed since creation. To emphasize this innate construct, the Ner Uziel notes that more wars have been fought over Yerushalyim, whose very name means peace and from where eternal peace will spring forth, than over any other place on earth. Additionally, the holiest place on earth will also attract the most depraved elements, as the Canaanites were.

Rabbi Miller z”l offers a contrasting perspective to answer our question. Recognizing that man tends to rise to challenges and grow stronger from them, Rabbi Miller suggests that Hashem knew the mettle we were made of. He wanted us to grow into the potential only He knew we were capable of. For us to achieve those spiritual heights, it was necessary for us to face the challenges these nations represented, rise up against them and conquer our own natural tendencies. [The premise behind this idea, as I see it, is similar to the premise behind isometric exercises. The more pressure one needs to exert against the obstacle or wall, the stronger the muscle becomes. CKS] Hashem therefore placed us into these situations to draw out our hidden potential. But these are tests only Hashem can administer. Only He knows how strong we are and when we may actually fail.

It is precisely for the challenges of living in an alien world that Hashem instilled in us the trait of stubbornness, of being a stiff necked people, writes Rabbi Zaichick z”l in Ohr Chodosh. We maintained our identity in Egypt and we continue to maintain our identity throughout the Diaspora, even to those immigrants who refused to work late on Friday and were told not to come to work on Monday. Human beings need a cause to fight for, a cause greater than themselves, and Jews especially are in the forefront of multiple causes, whether for ourselves, as in the movement for the freedom of Soviet Jewry (My oldest children remember the SSSJ rallies we went to with the family at the UN, CKS) or the causes of others, such as rallies against segregation. Without causes and challenges, we may be led down an insidious road toward meaningless lives that want only fleeting pleasure and leisure. When we are faced with challenges against our Yiddishkeit, we need to stand up for Jewish values against the norms of the alien cultures in which we live.

Let us now return to the rose among the thorns. The medrash states that a king wanted to destroy his wild and overgrown garden, but then he noticed one beautiful rose within that garden For the sake of that one rose, he spared the entire garden. The analogy is clear; Hashem spared the corrupt world time and again because of Bnei Yisroel.

Rabbi Goldwicht z”l goes into great detail to explain this medrash. Multiple times Hashem wanted to destroy the world, through the flood, at the building of the Tower of Babel, but for twenty-six generations Hashem desisted, seeing that in the future Bnei Yisroel would arise, and for their existence it would be worthwhile to save the world.

But what is it about this people that would be the world's saving grace? This nation would be built upon the characteristic of chesed, of loving kindness to others, and for the preservation of this trait, Hashem saved the world. Therefore it says in Tehillim, "Olam chessed yeboneh/the world will be built (sustained) through the element of chessed. This was the trait most closely associated with our first patriarch, Avraham, this was the trait most closely associated with Ruth, the matriarch of the Davidic Dynasty, and this is the trait Bnei Yisroel is closely associated with. We are rachamanim bnei rachamanim/compassionate people descended from compassionate people. (As I write this on Yom Ha'Atzmaut, it is appropriate to mention that Israel is always at the forefront to help other nations when disaster hits, even treating the wounded of their enemies.) This desire to give comes from the deepest part of self.

The desire and passion of the Egyptians was indeed very physical, but Bnei Yisroel had to incorporate this emotion within themselves in order to properly accept the Torah and be passionate about it. According to Rabbi Goldwicht, this passion was the "great riches" that Hashem promised Avraham that his children would leave Egypt with. We took that love and channeled it from the immoral use of the Egyptians to the love of chessed. Therefore, although we are indeed punished for our sins,  Hashem also scatters us among the nations because each nation has some characteristic we need to learn and incorporate within ourselves to serve Hashem properly. Whenever we find ourselves in challenging situations, adds Rabbi Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, we should realize that there are things we can learn and channel toward our avodat Hashem/service of God.

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz seems to turn all our previous insights around with an unusual interpretation. Rabbi Levovitz suggests that it was the presence of Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim that was the cause of their depravity. Since Hashem created the world in a way that would maintain its equilibrium, when the holy Yaakov and Bnei Yisroel descended to Egypt, the natural reaction was to counteract this sanctity with depravity. It is our holiness, continues Rabbi Levovits, that triggers the depravity and the anti Semitism we encounter wherever we go. Antisemitism is not logical. The Elders of Zion is not a logical treatise, nor are blood libels logical. It is our simple presence that triggers the antisemitic responses and the depravity, for that is how the forces of evil and the forces of good maintain the balance between them.

We are surrounded by those who would destroy our kedusha. We must recognize that we are in Hashem's palace, surrounded by His Torah that supplies all our needs. But we must also be aware of the slippery slope presented by other cultures. We must remain stubborn in our service to Hashem and in our dedication to live our lives with Hashem as our center, a life that lends itself to the practice of chessed to others, for that is what sustains the world.