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28.08.2018 19:57    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  devarim  ki tavo  

To Know or Not to Know

"Knowing" figures repeatedly in Deuteronomy as the basis for Moses' demand of the Israelites that they have faith in the Lord Who took them out of Egypt.  This knowing goes beyond merely acknowledging intellectually; it includes internalizing and accepting.  For the Hebrew root y-d-` (= to know) pertains both to the intellect and the heart, insofar as it is used to describe the special relations between the Lord and His people, on one hand, and the intimate bond between husband and wife, on the other.[1]

This is evident in Deuteronomy 4:39:

Know therefore this day and take to heart that the Lord alone is G-d in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.[2]

Similarly, Deuteronomy 8:5:

Know with your heart that the Lord your G-d disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son.

For, as Deuteronomy 8:3 states,

He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order that you should know that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.

Thus, even when knowing is not explicitly associated with the heart, it involves the demand for profound recognition:  both when it comes to believing utterly that "only the Lord your G-d is G-d, the steadfast G-d who keeps His covenant faithfully to the thousandth generation of those who Love Him and keep His commandments" (Deut. 7:9), and when it comes to trusting implicitly that the Lord will subdue the nations the people will encounter,[3] as well as being aware that inheriting the land is not a function of the Israelites' righteousness but of the wickedness of the other nations,[4] and certainly having experienced the miracles wrought for the people[5]—as the basis for all obligation to obey the Lord.

It follows from this that absence of such knowing is not only an intellectual deficiency but also an emotional one.  This makes clear the fault that Moses found when he admonished the people:  "…and curse[d are you], if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your G‑d, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not known" (Deut. 11:28).  An apt explanation is given by Ha-Ktav ve-ha-Kabbalah:[6]

This can more appropriately be interpreted from the usages, "I do not know the Lord" (Ex. 5:2), "know with your heart" (Deut. 8:5), "know the G-d of your father" (I Chron. 28:9)—which reflect a matter of willingly consenting and choosing Him.  "Which you have not known" refers to those that it would not be suitable to know or to choose, on account of their lack of might and ability to help and deliver.

We may add that perhaps the sin lies mainly in not knowing rather than in worshipping other gods, for had there been spiritual devotion and identification with the pagan gods, then at least there might have been some justification for worshipping them.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes a direct association between the knowing which Moses required of the people and the not knowing of other gods.  However, he adds another dimension, also connected with knowing:  the G-d of Israel led the people with knowing and feeling, but pagan deities, the forces of nature, have no relationship towards those led by them:

"Whom you have not known" expresses the lack of rationality in pagan worship.  The Lord, the only G-d, revealed Himself and showed His relationship towards you, your fate and your deeds in a thousand ways.  What do you know about the conscious and deliberate [i.e.,knowing] leadership of any other force in nature or in the world?  What is known to you about His knowing dominion over you?

Another rebuke is added in Deuteronomy 13:7:  "If your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, 'Come let us worship other gods'—whom neither you nor your fathers have known." Rabbi Yossi of Galilee interprets this (Sifre Deuteronomy 87):

It is to Israel's disgrace that the other nations of the world do not abandon the heritage of their ancestors, yet Israel abandon what their ancestors have passed down to them and go worship pagan gods.[7]

With the greatness of the G-d of Israel being so certain, established by a prolonged series of experiences - beginning with the exodus from Egypt, and continuing with revelation at Mount Sinai and wandering in the wilderness - it is inconceivable that the Israelites should turn to other gods who have not proven themselves by doing anything for their sake. Therefore, there is no reason for them to find a place in their hearts.

But what does the false prophet have in mind when he entices people, giving them a sign or portent, saying, "Let us follow and worship another god whom you have not known" (Deut. 13:3)?[8] Surely such a prophet did not mean to note lack of knowing as cause for rebuke!  The issue can be resolved by expanding on Rabbi Hayyim Paltiel's[9] commentary on Deuteronomy 4:28:

The plain sense seems to be that initially they made a sculptured image, a likeness of what is in the heavens above, and when they came among people who worshipped other idols, they would say:  their idols are more powerful, and so they would worship them, as we see occurred in Kings (sic., actually II Chron. 25:14):  they worshipped the gods of Edom who had been defeated.

Following this interpretation, we can say:  the people, having understood the emptiness of other gods with whom they were acquainted, could not be enticed to worship them, but they might wonder whether there was any substance to new gods, as to unfamiliar ideas.

Maybe they contained some truth?  This is more than a little enticing to the human spirit.  A good example is presented by Communism in its heyday, when it swept away many a fine and good person the world over, hoping that the idea, thus far untried, would indeed provide a salve to the hardships of humanity.

In Parashat Ki-Tavo the theme of not knowing other gods comes up time and again:

The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have known.  (Deut. 28:64)

This verse clearly speaks not of the reprehensibility of the sin but of the severity of the punishment.  Therefore, following Targum Onkelos, Rashi interpreted as follows:  "Not that they will actually serve idols, but that they will have to pay tribute and poll-taxes to the priests of the idols."

This explanation does not go into depth on the essence of the punishment as expressing spiritual distancing from worshipping other gods.  This was filled in by Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, writing from the bitter experience of his own life:

It mentions further of their punishment, that in exile they will encounter such hardships and decrees that on account of these tremendous difficulties many of them will leave the religion and go over to worshipping other gods, the work of human hands, not believing in them, rather knowing and acknowledging that they are but wood and stone, that they can neither see nor hear, neither eat nor smell.

That worshipping will be for none other than to escape death, as has become clear and manifest today throughout the land of Spain and also in Italy, where for fear of death and on account of such numerous troubles and decrees most of the people have in their great sinfulness abandoned the faith.  But they keep the Teaching of the Lord in their hearts, and only worship the gods of other nations out of fear; on account of which the gentiles persecute them and call them heretics, burning them alive for this.

Scripture does not mention this here by way of stating their sin, but rather their punishment, that this will be the worst of the bad things to befall them; that while acknowledging and feeling faith in the Lord in their hearts, they will worship other gods with their mouths and will belie Him with their tongues, and that they will be put to death for this.  Hence it says here:  "and there you shall serve other gods."[10]

Rabbi S. D. Luzzato added to Abarbanel's remarks, showing how this punishment served to make amends for root of the sin:  it is well known that what a person is compelled to do by force will become loathsome and repugnant to him.  Therefore it says afterwards, "There you will search for the Lord your G-d" (Deut. 4:29).[11] Indeed, after the Jews were exiled to Babylonia and forced to bow down to a golden idol, they no longer were lured by idolatry and went after other gods, save for a few people in the Second Temple period who went after the Greek gods, not because idolatry pleased them, but to curry the favor of kings and officials.

Maimonides quite aptly remarked, regarding the punishment of serving other gods:[12] "This teaches that the judgments of the Torah do not bring vengeance to the world, but rather bring mercy, kindness, and peace to the world."  Thus, all the curses in the Torah are to become a blessing for us.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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