May 26, 2024
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First and Lasting Impressions

In our parsha, Bnei Yisrael is cautioned not to worship the gods of the Canaanim after Bnei Yisrael conquer their territory and reside there: “When Hashem your God will cut down the nations … and you will take possession from them and settle in their land. Beware for yourself lest you be attracted after them after they have been destroyed before you, and lest you seek out their gods…” (12:29-30).

If Bnei Yisrael, with their own eyes saw the annihilation of these nations and how their “gods” did nothing to save them, would it be necessary to be warned not to serve them? Rav Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav m’Eliyahu, 2, p. 113) quotes his father who derived from here, that the fact that we are warned shows the pervasive nature of what a simple impression can do and the influence it can have on a person, even through just witnessing it alone, and even though they saw that those “gods” proved to no avail. We can maybe add to this, that although Bnei Yisrael saw the undesirable fate of these nations, which perhaps shows the great consequence of following in their ways, they still could have potentially been influenced even after seeing with their own eyes their destruction.

We see from here the nature of a simple impression of when one experiences that which is against the Torah (i.e. the serving of those gods), and the potential it has to influence and alter one’s set of values, morals, and fundamental beliefs in life—perhaps even when seeing and knowing clearly the grave consequences of such action and lifestyle.

In Parshat Naso, the description of the sota is immediately followed by the discussion of the nazir. The Gemara (Sota, 2a) explains that the juxtaposition and connection between these two subjects comes to teach that whoever sees the disgrace of what occurs to the sota should become a nazir from wine [since wine can lead to immoral activity]. It’s apparent that a bystander of the sota incident should take upon himself a higher level of living, and therefore should become a nazir.

After seeing such a compelling incident, wouldn’t one already be moved to become a better person? If anything, therefore, it’s specifically he who perhaps doesn’t need to take it up a notch by becoming a nazir, for presumably, he may already be inspired by witnessing this incident and the punishment for going against the Torah! Rav Gedalia Schorr (Ohr Gedalyahu, Naso) explains that it’s the nature of a person to be affected by what he sees, and even if that which he sees may be quite not good, and a degrading act, nevertheless, it can still influence one to follow in that way. It would emerge, therefore, that yes, it’s more specifically the sota witnesser who should take on a loftier measure of living and therefore become a nazir, for it’s he whom the Torah is perhaps more concerned that might be negatively affected by what he saw. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Kol Rom, Devarim) adds another dimension to this observation, that even though the bystander didn’t see the sota do the actual improper act, still, seeing the consequence of her act, makes him aware that she did indeed do something improper, and thus the mere knowledge that someone went against the Torah can potentially influence him to begin taking the standards of the Torah less seriously. Hence, it’s more specifically him who needs a boost in a greater direction.

We perhaps see from here as well that even upon seeing the terrible consequence of the deed of the sota, the bystander may still be influenced to go in a similar way. In both the context of the warning against serving the gods of the Canaanim and in the case of the sota, one perceived that which the Torah disapproves of. And this impression—whether it’s just through seeing it alone (in the context of the Canaanim), or even just becoming aware of it on an intellectual level (as in the case of the sota), can potentially influence.

One may think that seeing, reading and just hearing things that are against the Torah have no effect on one’s internal core values and ideologies, but in truth the nature of an impression of such sorts may be more subtle than one might think.

Not only can it potentially influence and alter one’s bedrock beliefs and ideologies, it can also shift one’s personal makeup—for example, his physical desires and what he is practically attracted to. In our parsha the Torah commands not to eat blood, and even states (12:23) “be strong” to not eat blood. Why is the Torah going to such lengths to “strengthen us” in this commandment? Why do we need this “extra chizuk”? Ramban explains that this is because in Mitzrayim the Egyptians were very much into consuming blood.

The implication from Ramban seems to be that since we saw the Egyptians consuming blood, we might also come to consume blood. However, I think it’s safe to assume that objectively the idea of consuming blood is totally gross, but yet, as (I believe) Rabbi Binyamin Luban explained, we see from here that despite this objective disgust towards such a thing, Bnei Yisrael still could’ve been influenced to consume blood. So much so that the Torah even needed to provide “extra chizuk” against it. And seemingly, we’re dealing with a time where Bnei Yisrael weren’t even living amongst the Egyptians, but rather, the mere memory of it may still carry such an influence. Hence, we perhaps see from here that whereas at one point one may have may have been nauseated by the idea of consuming blood, however upon seeing—and even remembering—others consume it, it may change and even whet one’s appetite for it!

In Parshat Nitzavim (chp. 29), we are warned (and made to swear) about not worshipping the idols of the nations who we crossed paths with: “For you know how we dwelled in the land of Egypt and how we passed through the midst of the nations…and you saw their abominations and detestable idols, of wood and stone, of silver and gold …p erhaps there is among you a man or woman…whose heart turns away today from being with Hashem…” These idols we saw were “abominations” and “detestable,” and as Rashi explains they are described in these terms because “they are disgusting like revolting creatures; smelly and disgusting like excrement.”

So if they are absolutely nasty, then did we need a warning to the point that we even needed to swear on it to not to go after them? Rav Yitchak Zev Soloveitchik (Al Hatorah, from his students) brings an explanation that we see from here that seeing even something as revolting as this can still influence a person to the point where he doesn’t even see its repulsiveness anymore. Indeed, first these idols are “abominations and detestable,” and then they may be viewed as just “wood and stone,” but eventually one may desire it so much that he views it like “silver and gold.” Says Rav Soloveitchik (see Yalkut Lekach Tov, Nitzavim), this phenomenon carries such a concern that Bnei Yisrael even needed to swear against it. Hence, we perhaps see from here as well how whereas prior to seeing this a person may have viewed it with abhorrence, however, after seeing it, one may end up even being attracted to it.

One might think it to be an impossibility to ever desire certain societal behaviors, let alone ever engage in such actions. However, being influenced by societal practices is a natural process in the human makeup, and even when these societal “norms” are abominable, detestable and repulsive, one may nevertheless need to constantly strengthen his character and his belief in Hashem and Torah, in order to not be affected.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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