How God Judges Sin

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

For you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed through the midst of nations that was traversed. And you have seen the detestable things and the fetishes of wood and stone, silver and gold, that they keep.  Perhaps there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from our God to go and worship the gods of those nations—perchance there is among you a “root sprouting poison weed and wormwood” [metaphor for idolatrous thoughts]. And it will come to be, when hearing the words of these curses, and one blesses himself in his heart saying, “I shall have peace, for I follow my heart’s will.” Therefore I will add the moist to the dry [convert his inadvertent sins to intentional]. God will never forgive that party. Rather, God’s anger and jealousy will burn against that man, till every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon him, and God blots out his name from under heaven. God will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for misfortune, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant recorded in this book of Torah. (Deut. 29:15-20)

What is the flaw of “blessing oneself in his heart,” and is he punished for idolatrous thoughts alone, without worship? We also wonder how God can convert previous inadvertent sins into intentional sins; how can the past intent be changed? God says this using a metaphor, “adding the moist (accidental sins) to the dry (intentional sins).” What gain is served by this use of metaphor? And what precisely is the difference between inadvertent sins and intentional sins? Next, why doesn't God ever forgive this person? Furthermore, God's anger “burning” against this person is quite severe; what mandates this harsh response? And again we have another metaphor, “root sprouting poison weed and wormwood” referring to one’s corruption of mind and emotion. How is metaphor preferable than a literal statement?

A person who blesses himself in his heart means that he is convinced that his subjective view is reality: his idol is real and God is not. He does not entertain error, God's authority or other opinions. He cannot change; he cannot be forgiven. God responds, “I will add the moist to the dry” which Rashi explains as God converting his inadvertent sins to intentional. But this is not literally possible since a sin committed inadvertently is sealed in history as an inadvertent sin. History cannot be changed. 

If someone righteous turns away from righteousness and does wrong, practicing the very abominations that the wicked person practiced, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they did shall be remembered; because of the treachery they have practiced and the sins they have committed—because of these, they shall die (Ezekiel 18:24).

No righteous deeds are remembered because God's method of judgment is a summation of a human being. If a person is presently an idolater, it is irrelevant that he was previously a monotheist. This is the meaning of converting inadvertent sins to intentional. It is “as if” the sins are converted because this person partakes of none of the good of his previous years and regrets his former good acts (Chazal)…as if those good actions never existed. It may be that regarding other sins God will weigh the good of the person against his evil. If he has more good (measured not by quantity, but by the gravity of those actions) God then seals him for life. This is because regarding sins other than idolatry, he still functions within the context of accepting God. But here we are discussing idolatry, and the rabbis say whomever commits idolatry is like he rejects the entire Torah. As he rejects God, any good he did is completely inconsequential because it is not done as following God. 

Such a person is not forgiven and suffers severe calamity—“God blots out his name from under heaven”—as God intends to dispel any validity of idolatry. To show that God alone reigns as the sole source of the universe, God delivers severe calamity to the idolater evoking this response from the world: “Because they forsook the covenant that God of their ancestors made with them upon freeing them from the land of Egypt; they turned to the service of other gods and worshiped them” (Deut. 29:24,25). A severe response is vital to discount explanations of natural disaster. God intends the world abandons all belief in idolatry and uses this person as example. The idolater’s false gods did not come to save him, and God’s Torah curses which threatened this response came true.

Is this person judged for idolatrous thought alone? It can very well be, as idolatry is a sin of the mind…one sins as soon as he rejects God and accepts belief in idols. The 10 Commandments’ first five laws are in the order of laws of thought, speech and action. Accepting God and rejecting idolatry are first two laws pertaining to the mind.

Regarding the use of metaphor, God has decided that idolatry must be viewed as a poisonous growth: it is evil and contagious. Metaphor always intends to call upon a person’s familiar frame of reference to eliminate what might be vague and deliver a precise message with no ambiguity.

The lesson from this Torah portion is to show the calamity and tragic irrevocable loss to a person convinced in his subjective false views. God intends Torah to move man away from his fallacies and to teach him what is objectively true, not only for the benefit of God's providence when we follow him, but for the joy God designed us to experience when continuing our Torah studies and seeing His brilliance. It is a person’s insecurity and ignorance that forces his belief in emotionally satisfying but untrue idolatry to protect him, and comfort his fears. We must apply this lesson and teach our children humility and an unwavering commitment and trust in God's wisdom. Our message to them: “This is His world and functions by His rules.” Before a humble child grows into an arrogant adult, train him in this reality, that God determines how the world operates and that we should abandon any thoughts that conflict with Him. How very sad it is for a person who argues with God.