By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
August 3, 2002
Moshe warns the people of Israel of dangers to their spiritual
well-being that will arise after they take their rightful place in their land:
When Hashem, your G-d, will cut down the nations from before
you, where you go to dispossess them, and you drive them out and you settle in
their land (B’ARTZAM); then take heed lest you be impelled to follow after them,
after they have been destroyed from before you, and lest you investigate after
their gods, saying, “How have these nations served their gods? I will do so as
well.” You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d, because every abomination of
Hashem which He hates have they done to their gods; for even their sons and
their daughters have they burned in the fire to their gods. Each thing that I
command you shall you take care to observe; you shall not add to it nor shall
you diminish from it (Devarim 12:29-13:1).
(We follow here the division of the Torah according to the spaces in the Torah
scroll the parshiot, rather than the chapter breaks, which were introduced
later, and by Christian scholars.)
Of what does Moshe remind his people to be wary?
“How have these nations served their gods? I will do so as well” (v.30).
Rashi (based on the
Sifri, the Halachic Midrash on the books of Bamidbar and Devarim, 81, and on
Sanhedrin 60b-61a) says that this passage extends the prohibition against
worshipping idols: Not only are general modes of worship (such as sacrifice,
incense, libation and prostration) forbidden; so are any of the modes of service
that are specific to particular idols, such as setting up a sacrificial pillar,
throwing a stone for Mercury or defecating (!) before Peor.
with Rashi’s reading, saying that this passage prohibits adapting the particular
modes of worship of idolaters to the service of Hashem. You might have thought
that these modes are detestable only because they were directed towards false
idols, and that they must be reserved only for the One True G-d. (Although it is
hard to imagine that Ramban is referring to all of these modes!) However, Hashem
prohibits these modes even for Him, because these inherently immoral actions are
Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) elaborates on this last
point: If you begin by adopting their modes of worship for the service of Hashem,
even though you are doing it for His sake, you will be led to these
How will this come about? Why might they especially fall prey to the ways of the
other nations “after they have been destroyed from before you” ?
Perhaps the source of this frightful scenario lies in the words “and you drive
them out and you settle in their land.”
Is this not “your land,” which Hashem promised you as the nation
of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? Perhaps the Torah wishes to hint that, as long
as you have not internalized the fact that this is your land, you cannot avoid
stumbling into disobedience, idolatry and immorality.
Saadiah Gaon (882-942) is obviously uncomfortable with the words “in their
land”, so he renders B’ARTZAM as “in their place,” but this does not solve the
Therefore, we turn to Haamek Davar (R.
Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) who goes further: After the nations
are driven out, you might imagine that their endurance in what had been their
land had been due to the performance of these rituals, and you might embrace
them so as to maintain your hold on the land. The Torah informs us that on the
contrary, only if you follow Hashem’s commands faithfully will you retain the
Hirsch (Rabbi Shimshon
Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888) suggests a psychological explanation: You might
feel it necessary to adopt the nations’ rituals out of a sense of guilt that you
“owe it” to those who were driven out on your account that you preserve their
way of life. Thus, you might worship their gods (Rashi), or you might serve
Hashem using their rituals (Ramban). Even if you follow your own ideas to
“create rituals,” they will not be Hashem’s dictates, but yours, and you will
not be serving Him, but yourself.
Rashi has a completely different way of interpreting “after they have been
destroyed from before you”:
After you see that I have destroyed them from before you, you
must consider why they were destroyed, namely because of their corrupt ways, and
so you must not act likewise, so that others will not come after you and destroy
Why does Rashi understand the passage this way? Why not explain it, as other
commentaries do, that the Torah prohibits following the idolaters’ ways?
The super-commentary Siftei Chachamim (R. Shabbtai Bass, 1641-1718) says that
Rashi reasons as follows: The warning “take heed lest you be impelled to follow
after them, after they have been destroyed from before you” cannot mean that we
need not worry about following the idolaters’ ways before they have been
ousted. Therefore, this passage must be focusing on a concern that will arise
only after the idolaters have been removed namely to recall the fate
that befell them and to learn from this not to repeat their errors.
Hirsch considers that the recollection of the heathen way of life of the land’s
previous inhabitants is only the first of four mental and social influences
which could lead the people astray from serving Hashem. It is then followed by
the influence of a false prophet (13:2-6), the enticement of family members
(verses 7-12), and the waywardness of fellow citizens (verses 13-19).
After the people of Israel are secure in the land their land they must be
ever-watchful to remain faithful to Hashem’s commands to maintain their national