Yaacov Haber's Torah Insights for SHABBAT
drasha was given at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo on Shabbat Netzavim, 5748 (1988), and
transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker.
The entire series has been published in a book
titled "Reachings" and can be ordered by
Comments and questions are always welcome.
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
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 Haber is the OU's National Director of Jewish
Education and the spiritual leader of the OU's Pardes
"A tree of life for those who embrace
Send comments to Rabbi Haber at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Yaacov Haber