Following God Perfectly
“When you come into the land which Hashem your God gives you, do not learn to do like the errors of those nations (Deut. 18:9).”
The Torah lists many idolatrous prohibitions: setting signs or accepting omens (Nichush), passing children through fire (Molech), forecasting using objects (Kosame), fortune telling and horoscopes (Mi’onane), witchcraft (Kishuf), consulting the dead and others. These practices are not based on truth or knowledge and therefore they are false.
But this Torah section concludes with a statement not found at the end of other sections: “Perfect (tamim) shall you be with Hashem your God (ibid 18:13).” Why isn’t this statement found at the conclusion of dietary laws, sexual prohibitions, or monetary laws? Why is the statement of “Perfect shall you be…” mentioned here alone? What does “perfect” mean?
We must say that only regarding idolatrous violations is one “imperfect” with Hashem. If one were to eat non kosher foods, he would not violate this command to be perfect. What specific value does “perfect” with God target?
Each of the aforementioned idolatrous practices is an attempt in some way to procure information or to secure oneself. A few examples will help to illustrate this point. Molech was a practice through which a parent would pass his child through two flames: not burning the infant, at least according to Maimonides. What was this objective? Let us consider. Fire is the one element which opposes all biological existence. In all elements an organism may survive, except in fire. Passing the child through fire unharmed, the father imagines that just as the child is shielded from flames, he will be shielded from all other mishaps during his life. It makes sense that the parent/child relationship forms the prohibition, as the parental instinct id strong for the survival of their children. However, this parent has a distorted notion that this action is fortuitous and actually protects his child.
Kosame and Nichush were two practices which “foretold” the future. So too was the practice of consulting the dead. The goal is to obtain knowledge.
What common thread runs through all these practices? The answer is “knowledge.” In each of these violations the inquirer seeks security through some imagined source of knowledge, via a warlock, an enchanter, or the dead. He assumes there is a source of knowledge out there, besides God. This is precisely where one removes his self from following God perfectly, or rather, “exclusively.” To assume sources of knowledge other than God, is to not follow God “perfectly.” It is a dilution of God’s unique and exclusive position. Therefore, the command to “be perfect with God” demands that we deny all imagined sources of knowledge or forces. Rashi explains this topic in this same manner: “Follow Him perfectly and look to Him, and do not chase after the future. Rather, all that comes upon you accept it wholly, and then you will be with God and in His portion (Deut. 18:13).”
The followers of these practices assume that aside from God, there are other means through which the universe operates. They assume that outside of natural law, other powers exist. This is of course baseless. But their insecurities propel them to seek forecasts for their actions, so they need not think for themselves and they are no longer insecure about the future, which scares them. Relying on another person’s advice or assuming to know the future removes their need to make decisions and provides a false sense of safety. This is the opposite of God’s plan that man engage the gift of the intellect and approach each new day intelligently.
Similar to these idolatrous practitioners are present day Jews who check a Mezuzah when household members fall sick, or those who don red bendels to ward off evil, place keys in challas for luck, use prayer books as protection, and those who ascribe powers to Rebbes and Kabbalists. I recently heard of a Meir bal Hanase practice where individuals believe that by giving charity one can locate a lost object. How damaging are such notions. What is “created” cannot function outside of the “Creator’s” plan for that thing. It is clear. Just as God set boundaries for the sea, “You set a boundary, they cannot overstep (Psalms 104:9)” so too, all of creation follows the laws governing its matter and behavior. Man’s act of giving charity has no natural relationship to finding objects. Thus, Meir bal Hanase practices are ineffective. Just as a parchment and ink Mezuzah burns when ignited and cannot protect itself, it cannot protect man. And wearing red threads cannot withstand God’s punishments. This practice is a direct violation of God’s system of Reward and Punishment: sins yield punishment and creations are ineffective against God’s will. (Tosefta Sabbath chapter seven prohibits this act.)
All practices assuming forces aside from God are idolatrous. It makes no difference if we see “religious” Jews practicing such foolishness, if we read about them in a book, even if authored by a Rabbi. The truth is only that which we perceive, or that which we reason to be true, or what God wrote in His Torah. He created and controls the universe; therefore, He alone determines reality. Not people, and not objects. “Perfect shall you be with God” means we must not deviate from following God alone. God is the sole Cause of all that exists. This excludes anything else from affecting reality outside its range of laws.
Having shown that the term “perfect” (tamim) refers to man’s requirement not to assume knowledge or powers outside of God, we have a question. In Genesis 17:1 regarding circumcision, God instructed Abraham to “Walk before Me and be perfect.” God again uses the term “perfect.” How does this fit in with our theory? Ibn Ezra says the following commentary on this command to Abraham to “be perfect”: “You should not ask why (to) perform circumcision (ibid).”
On the surface, Ibn Ezra appears to defy all he stands for, i.e. a life of understanding. How can he make such a statement?
Ibn Ezra is not saying we should abandon our minds. Rather, he is teaching us that Abraham should not make his performance of Divine decrees depend on his own intelligence as a prerequisite for his fulfillment. Ibn Ezra teaches that man can fall prey to this erroneous notion: “Only when I understand the reasons will I perform Torah laws, but not before.” To this Ibn Ezra teaches, “Do not inquire why to perform circumcision” i.e., “Do not let your inquiry determine your acts.” Meaning, perform the commands despite your lack of comprehension. Of course, continue to strive for the reasons behind this and all commands.
This is Ibn Ezra’s teaching, and why the term “perfect” is also used here. In this case too, man can go so far as to think of himself as a source of knowledge outside of God, considering himself on the level to vie with God and His commands. God says to Abraham “be perfect” – follow Me even when your mind does not yet grasp with complete understanding.
Thus, man is not “perfect with God” in two ways: when he makes imaginary forces, or himself, vie with God.
We see Abraham does follow this concept, as he did not second-guess God when he was commanded to kill his son Isaac. A wise Rabbi once asked why Abraham inquired of God’s decision to destroy Sodom but not regarding Isaac’s slaughter. The Rabbi suggested that Abraham realized he could learn about God’s justice. But regarding perfection via commands, Abraham felt he could not necessarily understand how a command would perfect him, although it did. He therefore did not ask about the killing Isaac – a Divine command – but he did inquire about God’s justice for Sodom.
Finally, what about circumcision poses a greater problem than other commands? Perhaps, as God’s works must be perfect, asking man to surgically alter the body poses a question. No other command tampers with God’s design.