Thursday, August 05, 2010

Dvar Torah: Parshas Re’eh / פרשת ראה – Black, White and the Navi Sheker

Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17


I think I may have gotten my kitten down the tree at last…

In the middle of this week’s parsha, we’re introduced to the navi sheker, a false (or lying) prophet who tries to lead b’nei Yisrael astray, specifically into avoda zara; idol worship.

Fascinating. Why? Because the navi sheker is still a navi, or at the very least, possessed of jaw-dropping spiritual powers. The Torah tells us right out: they’re going to do wonders, they’re going to work miracles. Amazing stuff: not hocus-pocus, but real signs and miracles.

This is a person who has a gift: an earthly conduit for Godly power. They have the potential to hear the words, see the visions, bring us a message of hope and faith – but instead, they turn around and stab God in the back, then tell us to run the other way.

The Sifrei (a book of midrash on the last two books of the Chumash) actually suggests that the navi sheker is a true prophet who has offered true prophecy in the past. Now, he’s relying on his rock-solid reputation – to lead b’nei Yisrael away from Hashem.

It’s like a superhero who turns his back on fighting crime; what could do that to a person? In a comic book, and maybe in the Chumash, too, it usually comes down to cowardice: he’s afraid.

What is the navi sheker afraid of? Well, if you look at the life of the navi, I actually wonder who would willingly take that on.

The nevi’im were never our friends. The priest Aharon, whose gift of prophecy was far, far less than that of his brother Moshe, was everybody’s friend; Moshe was a teacher, feared and respected. His role, as a navi, was to tell the truth, to bring the people the message they needed – not the one they wanted to hear.

If you tell people what they want to hear, they’ll like you a whole lot more.

The Torah says if the navi sheker tells Jews to do avodah zarah, idol worship, you’ll know they’re false, and you should put them to death. The Torah is tough on idol worship, so that’s not surprising.

But we also learn that even if the navi sheker takes away one single mitzvah, it’s the same deal: death. “Don’t bother with tefillin!”: death. “Wear wool and linen together!”: death.

For the rest of us, saying those kinds of things might fall under the general prohibition of “lifnei iver” – don’t put a stumbling block in front of the blind. If I tell you you’re allowed to eat crab meat, well, slap me on the hand, because that’s a really bad thing. But I wouldn’t be put to death: a navi sheker would be.

Talk about disproportionate. Shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime?

Not always; not with a person who is spiritually gifted. As we saw with Moshe, Hashem’s gifts come with high expectations. Hashem said “speak to the rock” – but he hit the rock. For the rest of us, no big deal. For Moshe, it meant life in exile. If you have a gift, Hashem expects you to use it – the right way.

So the navi sheker has this gift, but uses it to turn people away from Torah – even from just a little part of Torah, a teeny-tiny mitzvah. Do we really need every single one?

We know the Torah is strong; it endures. How could one small change hurt the Torah? Actually, it doesn’t, but it does hurt us. It hurts our faith. If you listen to the navi sheker and decide not to put on tefillin anymore, what have you lost? Not just the single mitzvah of tefillin; you’ve lost your entire faith. Without tefillin, it’s not Judaism, it’s something else.

Let’s say the navi’s name is Bob – it’s Bob-ism. Let’s say your name is Phil – it’s Phil-ism. It may be about you; it may be about the navi – suddenly, it’s not about am echad, one people, with one Torah, standing together at Har Sinai.

And either way, it is surely avodah zarah.

Now, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about someone who doesn’t know how to put on tefillin, doesn’t own tefillin, doesn’t have time for tefillin. That’s not avodah zarah; that’s just ordinary people, living Jewish lives the best we can. We all have our challenges and we also all have our easy mitzvos, the ones we love – the ones that make us feel totally great about being Jewish.

Avodah zarah is when you shove it aside and say, I’m in charge here; I’ll make the decisions from now on.

For a person of faith, it’s tough to imagine being swayed by signs and wonders. We’ve been Jewish so long, clung to it against all odds and oppression, throughout the ages. It would take a lot to break us away from it, right? Sometimes, we’re pretty proud, and we ought to be.

But we underestimate the power of firsthand experience. For hundreds, maybe thousands of years, before the scientific process was first elucidated, people created entire scientific theories and texts based on what they guessed to be true: their observations, their intuitions, what felt right. Four humours; four elements; the liver as the seat of the soul, and sin as the cause of childbed fever.

That was science, up until a couple hundred years ago.

Today, we call that religion. What you observe, intuit, feel with your heart – we assume those are spiritual truths. These days, we’re so far removed from our source that it doesn’t even take signs and wonders to sway us. Not when one of the biggest growing movements in North America consists of folks who say they’re “spiritual but not religious.”

“Spiritual but not religious” is the call of the navi sheker to those of our age who wish to go through life unencumbered. It means choosing mitzvos here and there and everywhere, the only commonality being the fact that you’ve chosen them; they speak to you. Today, we ourselves – our eyes, our heart – have become our own navi sheker.

This week’s parsha begins with a challenge, and although Moshe is speaking to the entire am Yisrael, it is NOT a general challenge, but rather a very specific, individual one. First, the grammar: The first word is “Re’eh” – YOU see, singular. Then, “I have set before you” – before YOU, plural.

Hashem sets, and it is not up to us to pick and choose – but it is up to us as a nation to keep the Torah, intact, together – to not subtract or, perhaps curiously, to add to it. Don’t make it more difficult than it has to be – but it IS going to be hard, and we must stick together.

Finally, what is it that Moshe tells us in that first verse, that we must look and see?

A blessing, and a curse. At first, it looks like the same wording – a blessing that will follow when we listen to God and His mitzvos, and a curse that will follow if we turn away. But if you look closely, only the curse is conditional.

“The blessing: THAT you will heed the commandments… the curse: IF you will not heed the commandments.”

Hashem is meeting us so much more than halfway here – he’s already promising that the bracha is ours.

Actually, many commentators say the mitzvos themselves ARE the bracha: the reward is the opportunity to listen to God. Listening is how we draw closer, to anybody, and especially to our Creator.

Blessing – and curse. It sounds black and white, and that is a frightening thing. That is a challenge. But let’s look at what Hashem really means by “black and white.” Assume that Hashem gives us the Torah not to trip us up but to give us the privilege of more and more and more mitzvos – even the easy ones.

So why is there no middle way between black and white, blessing and curse? Our lives are either going to be purposeful - purpose-filled – or they’ll be meaningless. Zelig Pliskin says in Growth Through Torah that the only middle way is sleepwalking; the proverbial life unexamined. God doesn’t want that. He wants us going through life with eyes wide open. Re’eh: SEE the bracha, and not the curse.

We are am kohanim and goy kadosh – a nation of nevi’im, if we’re not afraid of the task.

If ever there was a good time of year to take on a challenge, it’s this coming week, when we begin the month of Elul. In shul, we’ll begin blowing the shofar every day, forcing us to look around and see the navi sheker, even inside of ourselves.

Hashem has given us tremendous gifts – and that’s a frightening thing. Now what are we going to do with them? Will we turn our backs, flee in the other direction? Or are we going to tackle the challenge, use our gifts to help ourselves, and hopefully to help others?

Hashem begins this parsha with the certainty that we want to be close to him. The question, the IF, is whether we’ll rise to the challenge. I believe He already knows our answer, He’s already prepared the reward, and now He’s just waiting for us – waiting with open arms.

Good Shabbos.

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