THREE PRESCRIPTIONS FOR CIVILIZING THE WORLD
April 24, 2018
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1115, Acharei-K'doshim, Parsha Thought

SANDWICHED!

The Jewish nation, during its 40 years in the desert, was sandwiched between two decadent cultures: the Egyptians and the Canaanites.

To prevent the fledgling Jewish nation from descending into the immoral ways of the Egyptians or from adopting the new degenerate mores of the Canaanites, the Torah admonishes them in this week’s parsha to:

“…not follow the practices of the land of Egypt where you lived. And do not follow the practices of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow [literally: Do not go in the way of] their customs.”

Commentaries ask: Hadn’t the Torah just stated that they should not follow the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites? Why did the Torah add the admonition against following their customs?

Rashi answers that the first admonition was directed against the immoral actions of the Egyptians and Canaanites. Jews were commanded to reject their depraved behavior, which involved all forms of immorality.

The second admonition to “not go in the way of their customs” refers to behaviors that are not inherently depraved and immoral but are nevertheless devoid of positive value.

REFLECT ON THREE THINGS

The following is an adaptation of the Chassidic work, Imrei Noam, which provides a novel approach to this matter by citing a Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers (3:1) which states:

“Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin:

Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an accounting.”

Why is it necessary to reflect on all three things? Wouldn’t just one of these reflections suffice? And if we are dealing with an insensitive or indifferent person, then reflection on all three would not deter him or her from sinning.

Upon deeper reflection, the Mishnah seems to refer to three distinct sins or spiritual flaws. Each sin therefore requires a different focus and meditation.

The first spiritual failing arises from a person’s unrefined character. The source of one’s coarseness is a product of G-d’s creation of Adam from the dust of the earth.  A human being’s physicality is infused with an animal soul and is thus prone to indulge in, and be drawn to, all sorts of material and hedonistic pleasures.

The second class of sinner is the one who strays into foreign pastures and worships other g-ds. These individuals may, in fact, be very spiritual and capable of resisting temptation and rising above the material world in their pursuit of a higher purpose. Their error is the exchange of their belief in one G-d for a belief in and worship of false g-ds. Spirituality that is not rooted in the one true G-d is just as wrong as the obsession with the material.

The third category of sin is denial of G-d’s existence and rejection of the notion of accountability for one’s transgressions. Indeed, the entire concept of transgression cannot exist if one does not believe in an absolute Divine Authority who tells us what is right and what is wrong. Atheists, for example, believe that they are free to do whatever they choose.

COUNTERING THE THREE FLAWS

How does one counter these three very different moral and spiritual defects?

To counter the effects of atheism the Mishnah states the first reflection: “Know from where you came.” The source of our existence and life is our soul, which is a part of G-d. If we know that we are connected to the one G-d, we will find it untenable to serve another deity. This knowledge thus prevents us from worshipping other g-ds.

To counter the effects of physical coarseness and animal nature due to the obsession with one’s bodily needs and desires, the Mishnah lists a second reflection, “where you are going.” When we realize that our physical bodies will turn to dust “to a place of dust, maggots and worms,” that will weaken our obsession with the cravings of the body.

One could add a more positive and sophisticated understanding of this second reflection concerning the future of the body. It alludes to the Resurrection of the Dead, which will happen in the Messianic Age. Indeed, Maimonides counts belief in the Resurrection as one of the 13 Principles of Faith. In that era, the dichotomy between body and soul will no longer exist; the body will be as receptive to the Divine as the soul and they will enjoy a most harmonious relationship.

Knowing that our bodies will be resurrected and transformed into a holy vessel for our soul will dampen our body’s obsession for unbridled physical pleasure.

And to counter the atheist’s denial of G-d and accountability to Him, the Mishnah provides a third meditation, “Know before whom you are destined to give an accounting.” We must realize that there is a G-d before whom we will have to give an accounting for all of our actions. It is a G-d who is fully aware of all of our actions and to whom we are accountable.

THE PRACTICES OF THE LAND OF EGYPT, CANAAN AND THEIR CUSTOMS

With this introduction, the Imrei Noam explains the verse in our parsha:

“Do not follow the practices of the land of Egypt where you lived.”

This was directed against the idolatrous practice of the Egyptians. To counter Egyptian idolatry, G-d commanded the Jewish people to take the lamb, the idol of Egypt, and sacrifice it.

“Do not follow the practices of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you.”

This was directed against the immoral behavior of the Canaanites, of whom the Torah states, “All of these abominations were performed by the inhabitants of the land.”

And the third statement “Do not follow” is directed to those who do not necessarily worship their idols and are not necessarily hedonists but nevertheless follow the mores of the Egyptians and Canaanites because they have no respect for G-d and wish to assimilate. This is akin to the fathers of the Haskalah (the so-called Enlightenment movement), who converted to other religions. Their betrayal of Judaism was not motivated by a belief in the other religion but rather by the desire to be accepted into gentile society and thus demonstrated their contempt for G-d and His Torah.

THREE MODERN APPLICATIONS

These admonitions were addressed to the generation of the Exodus. The prophet draws a parallel between the Exodus from Egypt and the future Redemption. It stands to reason that we too have to address three challenges as we prepare to leave Galus and enter the Promised Land.

The first thing we must do is abandon the mentality of Egyptian idolatry. While we no longer have Jews bowing down to pagan deities, idolatry, in its more subtle forms, thrives in Galus. People who believe in G-d yet put their faith in other institutions and -isms of society, be they government, commerce, education, military, etc. To be sure, many of these institutions are necessary for a safe, secure and prosperous society, but we should not put our trust in them; they are merely instruments of G-d’s Will.

The second step is to abandon the decadent and hedonistic aspects of modern culture, as symbolized by Canaanite culture.

The third requirement is to reject the removal of G-d from society in general and from educational institutions in particular. This, arguably, has led to the pervasive violence and immorality of contemporary society. It is sad that, while both sides of the political system will argue as to what is the cause of the mass shootings, lack of gun control vs. untreated mental illness, they ignore the real root cause of wanton mass murder and other acts of violence. It is the removal of G-d and religion from the public arena, particularly from the youth whose impressionable minds are taught consciously or subliminally that G-d is not an important part of their lives.

To counter the G-dlessness amongst our youth in general society and its ramifications, the Rebbe called for a Moment of Silence to begin the day in all public and private schools. Once a student has an awareness of a Higher Authority, it will translate into awareness and respect for parents, teachers and human life as well.

The Rebbe’s message is part of his larger message promulgating the Seven Noahide Commandments to the entire world. This is in accordance with Maimonides’ ruling that Jews are obligated, where possible and safe, to influence the entire world’s population to abide by these Seven Commandments which form the bedrock of a civilized and civil society. The three areas of belief, in G-d, the negation of idolatry and immorality, are at the core of the Seven Noahide Commandments.

And while Jews do not proselytize, we still have responsibilities vis-vis the non-Jewish world. Rather, it is because our obligation towards the rest of society is not to convert them to Judaism but to expose them to the Noahide commandments that were given to them to fulfil their own mission to make the world a moral, ethical, civilized and inhabitable place.

This effort to influence society to observe the Seven Noahide commandments is the true form of Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam means more than simply fixing the world by helping society with its material needs. It is, most importantly, about “perfecting the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty,” as we declare daily in our Aleinu prayers.

Our mission is thus to inspire everyone to observe the Seven Noahide commandments, not just because they make sense but, mainly, because they are G-d’s prescription for a good world. These Seven Commandments were part of the revelation at Sinai. General observance of the Noahide Commandments paves the way for us to observe our 613 Mitzvos, which brings the Divine presence into the world and ushers in the Messianic Age.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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