Just as a person may be willing to have self-sacrifice with regard to holiness, so also on the side of impurity there can be a willingness to have self-sacrifice for negative reasons. Sometimes a person may be successful with his negative plans, and this gives him the impression that there is some truth to be found in the forces of impurity. There is nothing admirable about it. This is the topic of this week’s discussion.
This week’s Torah portion is parshat Re’eh. In this parsha the Torah warns us about a false prophet who tries to deceive us through a sign or a wonder to not listen to the voice of G-d. We are commanded not to be enticed by such wonders and to know that it is only an test from G-d, as the verse says: “You shall not heed the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of a dream; for the Lord, your G-d, is testing you, to know whether you really love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 13:4).
It is precisely because idolatry has the power to deceive people that the Torah warns us and demands that we not make the mistake of following after it. According to the Tanna Rabbi Yossi HaGalili: “The Torah ascertained the depth of the mentality of idol worship, the danger that it presents, and the lure of its ideology. Therefore, the Torah ascribed the false prophet with dominion in its regard, recognizing that a false prophet could perform wonders on the basis of idol worship. Therefore, even if the false prophet stops the sun for you in the middle of the sky, do not heed him” (Sanhedrin 90a). Rashi explains that the meaning of the phrase, “the Torah ascribed the false prophet dominion,” as “even if you see that prophet doing wonders and making things happen according to his will, as it is written, ‘and he gives you a sign or a wonder.’” This means that the Torah completely understood the mindset of the prophets of idol worship and how far-reaching their power was to create the illusion that they represented something very real. In this way, they were able to deceive people from serving the Creator, so much so that the Torah warned us that even if a prophet showed you heavenly signs and wonders to encourage you to worship idols, you should not listen to him and not be enticed by him.
However, if God does not want there to be idolatry, why does He allow them, the false prophets, to attain heavenly powers? He could simply nullify their power to do such acts. The Talmud says: “The philosophers asked the elders in Rome, ‘If your G-d has no desire for idol worship, why does he not annul it?’ Our sages replied: ‘If they were serving something that had no purpose, HaKadosh Baruch Hu would indeed abolish it, but since they are worshipping the forces of nature—the sun, the moon and the constellations—should HaKadosh Baruch Hu destroy the world because of the fools who practice idolatry?’ Rather, G-d allows the world to function according to its natural order, and fools who have acted corruptly will be judged in the future” (Avodah Zara 54b).
The power that idolatry has to deceive people is due to the fact that G-d has hidden His presence in this world and given over to each person to choose which way he wants to go. Everything was designed so that everyone will have free choice. Just as man can break his base desires and abandon evil, choosing instead to do only good, alternatively, he can follow the perverse desires of his heart to the extent that he can “force” the Creator to fulfill his evil wishes and plans. We should not wonder at this power, for certainly G-d does not desire such behavior. It is actually only a test to see if we will truly cling to HaKadosh Baruch Hu as it is written: “for the Lord, your G-d, is testing you, to know whether you really love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 13:4).
The forces of impurity try to mimic holiness and deceive us, making us think that it represents the truth. We generally tend to think that the concept of devotion is only relevant to the side of holiness while on the side of impurity there is only pure rebelliousness. Thus, when we see any kind “asceticism,” we tend to admire it as if it was really some form of truth, especially if it is accompanied by success and achievements.
The power that idolatry has to deceive people is due to the fact that G-d has hidden His presence in this world and given over to each person to choose which way he wants to go.
It is true that on the spur of the moment it can be very difficult to distinguish between falsity and truth, as Rabbi Nachman teaches: “As much as one reveals the truth, falsehood is revealed in opposition” (Chayeh Moharan 261). Rabbi Natan emphasizes that in exactly the same way that the truth is expressed, so too does falsehood find expression—literally in the very same language. Therefore, it is impossible to clarify what the truth is; rather, each person according to what he feels in his heart can only slightly understand the difference between clear truth and falsehood” (Halachot Birkat HaShachar 3:11).
At first, it is not possible to discern where the truth really lies. Both sides seem to be successful and achieving their goals. The difference can only be seen at the end, as Rabbi Natan says: “For a holy person, the very basis of his yearning and desire is to fulfill his eternal and true purpose, to separate himself from his impure earthly desires, which give him only short-term satisfaction, and to do the Will of the Creator, which is the true purpose of life. Then G-d will do wonders for him and grant his desires, and then it will certainly be good for him in this world and the next. And on the side of impurity, the opposite is true: through all of his intentions and base desires for the pleasures this world and the evil in his heart, he descends into Hell and his eternal life is lost.”
A tangible example of Rabbi Natan’s words can be seen in two different stories which are presented in the Talmud: The first is the moving story of the holy Tanna Rebbe Akiva when the Romans executed him, as our sages said: “At the time when Rebbe Akiva went out to be executed, it was the time for saying the Kriat Shema prayer, and as they were combing off his flesh using hot iron combs, he was taking upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven [reciting the Shema]. His disciples said to him: ‘Rabbeinu, even now, as you are being killed, you recite the Shema?!’ And he answered them: ‘All of my life I have been troubled by the verse “with all your soul,” which means even if G-d takes your soul. I asked myself when will I be able to fulfill it? And now that the opportunity has come to me, should I not fulfill it?! And he drew out the word Echad (One), etc. (Brachot 61b).
It is amazing to realize that a great Sadducee priest used those very same words to express himself. As is well known, during the Second Temple period, there was a sect called the “Sadducees.” At first, they pretended to be kosher Jews, and only afterwards did they reveal their true faces—that they denied most of the Torah.
“As much as one reveals the truth, falsehood is revealed in opposition” (Rabbi Nachman, Chayeh Moharan 261).
The Jews bitterly suffered from their harassment and informing. They were close to the government, and by the strength of their connections they were appointed as high priests. A high priest (Kohen Gadol) who was one of the Sadducees, on the holiest day, Yom Kippur, entered into the holiest place in the world, the Holy of Holies (Kadosh Kedoshim). He performed the ceremony of the incense offering outside of the Holy of Holies, and only then entered, which was the order according to the Sadducees distorted way of interpretating the Scriptures. The Talmud says that the high priest’s father rebuked him: “Although we hate the Pharisees (the nickname for the sages of Israel who practiced abstinence), we still fear that theirs could be the true interpretation of the Torah, and it may cost you dearly.” His son replied: “All my days I have been troubled by the verse describing this event, ‘for I will appear over the ark cover in a cloud.’ I said, when will I merit to fulfill it? And now that the opportunity has come to me, should I not fulfill it?!’”
Here we see that the Sadducee priest used the same expression of devotion as Rabbi Akiva but regarding an act which was wrong. Indeed, for the time being, it is a test, an illusion, but the difference is evident in the end result. About the holy Tanna Rabbi Akiva it is said that a heavenly voice came out and said: “Happy are you Rabbi Akiva that you are invited into the World to Come for Eternal Life.” However, the end of the Sadducee priest is described: “They said that not a few days had passed until he died and was thrown in the trash, and there were worms coming out of his nose. And some say that he was struck immediately, as he exited the Holy of Holies, as Rabbi Chiya taught, “a type of sound was heard in the Temple courtyard, as an angel came and struck him in the face. And his fellow priests came in to remove him from there, and they found the likeness of a footprint of a calf between his shoulders. That is the mark left by an angel striking, as it is stated with regard to angels: ‘and their feet were straight feet, and the sole of their feet was like the soul of a calf’s foot’” (Yoma 19b).
It is known that Rabbi Natan would often prove the hypocrisy of the maskilim (the “enlightened” Jews who left Judaism) and their rabbis. Also in his books, he often proves the insincerity of their words and reveals their malicious intent (see Hilchot Geviat Chov M’HaYitomim 3:5). It is told that one time they pointed out one of the rabbis of the maskilim to Rabbi Natan and said: “Here is a maskil rabbi who has never lied.” They then tried to refute Rabbi Natan’s words using the slanderous methods and hypocrisy of the maskilim. Rabbi Natan answered: “How do you want me to get excited about the fact that he has never being caught lying, given that he actually lived his whole life in denial of our sacred teachings handed down to us from generation to generation. This is the greatest lie” (“Otzar Nachmani “).
Only the tzaddikim who have truly searched for the truth all their lives and have separated themselves from all the base desires of this world, for no other purpose than to do the will of G-d, have the power to guide us in the way of truth, and they are the ones who it is fitting to draw close to.
(Based on Likutei Halachot, Birkat HaShachar 5, 78-79)