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Parashat Hashavua Nitzavim 2014 / 5774 - Rebel Without a Cause

19.09.2014 by

During the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, I got a little addicted to Facebook. Along with 24/6 TV, it was very helpful in keeping up with developments, and also gave me the opportunity to help with the war effort by doing my bit to fight the good PR fight against those who would deny Israel its right to self-defense, and, actually, to exist. I had a more personal stake in the hasbara  wars as well: my daughter, who works at, was called up for the entire war to return to her IDF Spokesperson's unit, and I felt that with my activity on line, explaining the way it raelly was to the Israel bashers,  I was right there with her in the front line of explaining Israel's position.

One of the things I noticed out there in cyberspace was the gigantic number of people who were so wrong it hurt. One need not dwell on the real haters, ranging from the barbarians of the Islamic State to the run-of-the-mill Muslim extremist and the other classic anti-Semites; they're nuts. It was some of the left wing, anti- Israel stuff, coming from Jews and non-Jews alike, that was so depressing to see. Often enough, they simply didn't know the recent history between Israel and the Palestinians, and were certainly clueless about what happened way back in 1993 or 2000. And if they knew anything, it was filtered through a wierd parallel universe, in which Israel is always wrong, has no real basic rights, and is treated and judged like no other nation on earth. I also noticed among these otherwise normative people a large amount of jargon and group-think coming from the far left and academia, that did a lot more to advance some obscure, twisted, post-modern, post-colonialist, anti-American (while living off the fat of the land in the US)  agenda than get at the truth. Some of the purveyors of this junk were people I knew, people I liked, and respected. As more and more of this dreck poured out over the internet, I wondered what happened to these hitherto reasonable, nice, smart, people. How were they turned into baying purveyors of this marginally anti-Semitic, profoundly uninformed, biased,  lock-step thinking? Knowing the anti-Israel and anti-intellectual norms at many colleges, I assumed it happened to them there; that was where they drank the kool-aid of post-colonial, anti-western, posturing, at the expense of honesty, truth, reason, and simple solidarity with their people. But how could otherwise good people have been turned around so easily?

Parshat Nitzavim, the first of the two parshas -Va'yelech is the second  - we read this week, like so many of the parshas in the book of Deuteronomy, is quite a nervous, pessimistic, portion. It assumes that the covenant between God and the Jewish people will, indeed, eventually be broken, the people will sin in various ways, and they will then be punished, severely. This depressing view of the future is a major theme of Deuteronomy, and includes the cycle of sin, destruction, exile, repentance, and redemption, which is forseen for the Jewish future here in Nitzavim and elsewhere.

There is an interesting discussion of this dynamic towards the beginning of the parsha. After again establishing that the Jews are in a nation-wide,  multi-generational, covenental relationship with God, Moshe discusses the possibility of the abrogation of the covenant: "Lest there be among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the Lord our God, to go and worship the gods of those other nations, lest there be among you a root that bears gall and wormwood. And it shall be, when he hears the words of this curse, he will bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall be at peace, for in the stubborness of my heart I will walk....The Lord will not spare him, for then the anger of the Lord and His jealousy will smoke against that man, and there will lie upon him all the curses written in this book, and his name shall be erased from under heaven. And God will separate him for evil from all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written  in this book of the Torah."

The message seems clear: those who deny the covenant in the worst possible way, with idol worship, will be singled out and destroyed. The need for this extreme response is made clear by the words "lest there be among you a root that bears gall and wormwood". This poetic phrase explains that unfaithfullness does not take place in a vacuum. It bears bitter fruit, for, if unpunished, others will be influenced, tempted, and convinced by the actions of the renegade that the covenant can be broken, with impunity, and they will break it as well. That is why the first rebel, be it an individual or a group, is punished, "erased", and "separate[d]" from the rest of the impressionable, easily swayed, nation.

OK, problem solved. The bad apple or apples will be disposed of, and the nation, and its covenant with God, should be safe. But wait. In the very next verse, following the punishment, erasure, and separation of the sinner, we read the following:  "And a later generation, your children, who will rise up after you, and the stranger who will come from a distant land, and they will see the plagues on the land, and the sicknesses with which God will smite it, brimstone and salt, the whole land the overthrow of Sodom and Amora...and all the nations will say 'for what reason did God do this to this land? What is this great anger'?  And they will say, 'Because they left the covenant of the Lord, God of their fathers, which He made with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt'." The Torah seems to jump from what we thought was a successful surgical strike against the individual sinner or sinners, in order to prevent the spread of the rot, to a description of the entire land being destroyed by an angry God,  to the wonder and consternation of later generations of Jews and Gentiles, who understand that the punishment came for thwe breaking of the covenant. 

What happened? How did we get from punishing the individual sinner to a nation-wide catastrophe? I would like to suggest that this dynamic is part of the general pessimism of the parsha, as well as an interesting insight into the way communities and individuals interact. Although the Torah tells us that God will aggressively weed out the sinners, punishing them in order to stop them from producing the bitter fruit of more evil, this attempt to isolate the rot is doomed to failure. Although the individual sinner will be punished, this, sadly, will not be enough to stop others from following, imitating, being influenced by, his or her behavior. The end result of a small number of people who break the covenant will be a general abandoning of it, which will be horribly punished. 

One could ask why this should be so. After all, if God really does "erase" and "separate" these people from the rest, why should that not do the trick?   Apparently, the nervousness we see in Nitzavim, and in much of Dvarim, is based on a sad fact: evil is powerful. It is attractive. Small numbers of traitors to the covenant, even if they are dealt with, and punished by God, will have an effect on the nation, and tempt the rest of the people as well. The corrupting power of this anti-covenental attitude is great. There is something in us which chafes against the normal, the healthy, the right, the good, and embraces the negative, nihilistic, and false. I think one of the phrases in the verses I quoted above - "And it shall be, when he hears the words of this curse, he will bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall be at peace, for in the stubborness of my heart I will walk..." - may give us an explanation as to why this is so. 

We have a desire to "walk in the stubborness of our hearts". To assert our individuality in a negative way, to shock, in a rebellion against that which, if we weren't so busy rebelling, we would see to be right, good, important, and true. Our individualism, our independence,  which, normally, are strong and healthy aspects of who we are, contain a downside, a fatal flaw: we like following the stubborness of our hearts so much, that we sometimes even do it when it takes us away from the right and the good. This is why the person in the verse thinks he "shall be at peace" - it feels like the right thing to do to go with your heart, to adopt the position of the one who feels and sees more clearly than all the others, who is able to see through what he understands to be the constraints and falsehoods of tradition. The identity of rebel, naysayer, the one who goes with his heart, his truth, and rises up against it all, is very attractive, even when its empty of content.

Marlon Brando, in The Wild Ones, embodies the emptiness and attraction of the rebel perfectly. When asked by a girl "Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?", he stupidly, and very charismatically, answers "Whaddya got?" (see it here I loved it when I was a teen ager; now I see its juvenile emptiness for what it is.

This is why erasing the sinners, separating them from the rest of the people, is not enough, and will never really work. Open the doors of irrational, nihilistic, selfish rebellion for its own sake, and it is well-nigh impossible to close them. That is why once this downward spiral of selfish, mindless anti-establishment posing begins, it can end in total destruction. Arguing against it on facebook, and in classrooms, and conversation, and everywhere, is the leats we can do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

We have a desire to "walk in the stubborness of our hearts". To assert our individuality in a negative way.Rabbi Shimon

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