In today's parsha (continuing the theme of last week's) there is a call to choose good against evil, so as to receive blessings rather than curses. Among the actions of the children of Israel which will cause plagues on their land will be their behavior in serving other gods, "gods which they did not know" (Deut. 29:25).
This is puzzling. Idolatory, "avoda zara", is clearly a sin, whether one "knows" these gods or not! What is the Torah trying to tell us here? That it would not be so bad if we were first formally introduced to these gods?
No, I believe that the Torah is carrying a deep message here, which depends on the use of the word "yada'", "to know". This word is used many times in the Bible, and it has the meaning not only of intellectual knowledge, but also of intimate acquaintance. The first time the word is used is in Bereishis: "And the man [Adam] knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and bore Cain" (Gen. 4:1). The word here connotes a deep, intimate relationship between a man and his wife.
It is a mistake to think of this word as merely a euphemism for a sexual relationship. In the catalog of forbidden relationships (Lev. 18) the word is not used at all! It means, rather, an enduring, intimate relationship, such as should hold between a man and wife, or between us and G-d.
That is what is meant in the passage quoted in this week's parsha. G-d is saying, in effect: "How could you leave me, whom you have known for generations, for thousands of years? How could you leave me, your family G-d, for strange gods who mean nothing to you? Worse than the technicality of the sin of avoda zara, you have betrayed Me, your intimate acquaintance!
There is an analogy in the case of unfaithfulness between marriage partners. Aside from the technicality of the sin of adultery (which is serious enough), there is the humiliation of the betrayal of one's intimate life's partner for someone else, whom one does not even know (in the deep sense of "know").
Interestingly, in this week's Haftara, Isaiah makes the famous comparison: "As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your G-d rejoice over you" (57:5). The rejoicing of a bridegroom over his bride is the deepest form of rejoicing possible. It is the beginning of the most intimate relationship possible between two people.
At this time of year, our thoughts are turning to teshuva (penitence). Teshuva is not a matter of going around with an eraser, so to speak, erasing this or that sin. It is a much more basic idea -- returning, or getting closer to G-d, as the word implies. Of course, to do this, we have to remove certain sins, and improve our practice of mitzvos, but the bottom line is to increase our intimacy with G-d. It is my prayer that by our teshuva, we may all experience the joy of this intimacy.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Rabbi Yaacov Haber is Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Orchos Chaim in Jerusalem http://www.orchos.org.il and President of TorahLab http://www.torahlab.org Comments and questions are very welcome: email firstname.lastname@example.org