Whims of the Heart

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Torah readings of Nitzavim-Vayeilech contain a description of the special covenant that was executed between Hashem and the Jewish People. What is unique are the particular “curses” that are attached to it. This is serious business. Every Jew that ever comes into existence is bound by the terms of G-d’s special relationship with His Nation.

In this regard, a question has been raised regarding the difference between the original people who were redeemed from Egypt and willingly agreed to enter the Covenant on Mt. Sinai and the later generations who accepted no such undertaking. Why are the future descendants of the “early ones” bound upon pain of serious imprecations to observe all the requirements of a religious system they never voluntarily signed on to?

In my opinion, there was a major difference between the Jews redeemed from Egypt and the subsequent generations. The role they played was to establish a unique People which would be governed by the dictates of Hashem’s Torah. When they accepted the Torah, a new nation came into being, the Jewish People.

There is no doubt that there is an element of chance in the determination of the social context in which a person is to be born. One is not given any choice to determine which culture he wants to be part of or which parents he wishes to have. These are all matters over which one has no control or say. It’s part of the terms of human existence. Let us bear in mind that everyone is born into a culture, religion or society which will impose responsibilities which he has never agreed to assume. This is the way of the world as every group seeks to establish mechanisms which will assure that its cultural, religious and political norms will be perpetuated for future generations.

This is the way things operate in the realm of Torah as well. Here, too, the new generations are Jews by birth and must observe the obligations of the group. But let us remember that this group bases its existence upon the laws and ordinances revealed by the Creator, which are intended to lead one to the highest level of perfection. It is, therefore, a privilege and an honor to be a member of the group with which Hashem has fashioned a special covenant.

There is, in our Parsha, one particular individual who seems to be singled out for special treatment. The verse states: 

“Lest there be among you a man or woman or a family or a tribe whose heart turns today away from our G-d to go and worship the gods of those nations…And when he hears the words of this oath he will be at ease in his heart saying ‘I will be at peace for I will go according to the inclinations of my heart’… Hashem will not forgive him, for then the anger and “jealousy” of G-d will flare against that individual and there will come down upon him all of the oaths that are written in this Book; and Hashem will obliterate his name from beneath the heavens. (Devarim 29:17-19)”

One wonders why so much wrath is directed against this person. His crime seems to be that while he outwardly conforms to the requirements of Jewish law, in his inner heart of hearts he is resolved to act according to Sherirut Leebo (the whims of his heart). At first glance, this does not seem to be the greatest crime, but the Torah makes it clear that it is quite serious. We must try to understand this phenomenon more precisely.

The ultimate goal of the Torah is to fashion a person who bases his behavior on the Wisdom of Hashem as it has been revealed to us. The greatest resistance to this endeavor stems from the stubbornness of man, whose ego prevents him from yielding to the authority of G-d.

Man has an innate sense of certitude about the meaning of life and matters of right and wrong. In most cases, this is based on his personal desires and preferences. Many people regard what they find subjectively attractive as being objectively worthwhile. However, the Torah does not believe in the sanctity of man’s moral conscience. That is why Hashem gave us Torah and Mitzvot and commanded us to diligently study them so that we could incorporate their teachings into our emotions and conduct.

Let us note that the basic philosophy of contemporary hedonistic man can be summed up as, “If it feels good, it is good”. In fact, Ernest Hemingway expressed it by saying that the good is anything that you do and don’t feel bad after. In other words, man has his own inner mechanism which lets him know if something is good or evil.

Judaism asserts that G-d’s moral law is not inscribed in the feelings of man. In fact, there actually is little correspondence between what is appealing to man’s moral conscience and what is actually righteous. Let us remember that the most heinous atrocities were committed by people who were convinced that they were doing a good thing. The Torah attests that very religious idol worshippers, with the best of intentions, offered up their own children to the deity known as Molech.

And the Nazis were thoroughly convinced of the absolute ethical imperative to put an end, in the most gory fashion, to every Jew, man woman and child, in the service of their racial ideology.

So the individual who outwardly yields to the Torah but inwardly denies it is, in fact, an idol worshipper who deifies his inner moral feelings as being the arbiters of right and wrong. His outer observance which doesn’t penetrate to the heart will give him a certain legitimacy in the eyes of other Jews, who will be drawn after his emotionally appealing deviations. That is why he must be treated so harshly.

As we approach Rosh Hashana let us remember that we must commit to the absolute veracity of Hashem’s Revelation. We must study it in depth in order to discover its great wisdom and thus enable it to enhance all areas of our endeavors. There will be times when the demands of Torah are beyond our ability to comprehend, or where they may seem to be contrary to our understanding of things. In those instances we must, as Rabbi Soloveitchik taught, put our emotions aside and Surrender to the A-Mighty. May we merit to achieve this.

Shabbat Shalom.