Re’eih: Broken Rules II

Aug 25th, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week, Spiritual Growth
I mentioned in Broken Rules I that certain Argentines, who shall remain nameless, also have difficulty with stop signs. This specific Argentine, joining me for my sunrise hike, sped through the streets as if there were no stop signs. (I admit that there were no other cars on the road – for some reason most people were still sleeping.) I generally do not argue with this Argentine (I can hear the host of the Thursday night class laughing). I love my morning hike but I am not in such a rush to begin the three miles trek that I speed all the way there. Oh well! Argentines are different.

This specific nameless Argentine grew up under military rule. Soldiers would stop people on the street, arrest them, torture them for a year or two, and then take them up in an airplane and push them out over the ocean. No one was safe. Your life was over if a soldier looked at you and decided that you would be his victim. The only rules were those of the soldier with whom you were dealing.

People who grow up under such conditions have a different take on rules. Primo Levi wrote a poem Chess II. It begins:

You mean that, halfway through,

With the game all but over, you’d like

To change the rules of play?

Levi was an Italian survivor of Auschwitz. He worked as a chemist before during and after the war. He originally believed that if he followed the German’s rules that he would survive. His problem was that they changed the rules at whim. Rules were not rules. He never recovered. He never recovered an ability to relate to rules. Primo Levi would understand our Argentine friend’s problem with stop signs. In fact, the Torah, in this week’s portion, understands her as well:

“You shall break apart their altars. You shall smash their pillars and their sacred trees you shall burn in the fire. Their carved images, shall you cut down. And you shall obliterate their names from that place. You shall not do this to God, your Lord.” (Deuteronomy 12:3-4)

Is it really necessary to instruct us not to do to God’s name what He instructed us to do to idols? Yes! Once we wage war against idols, we have changed our rules of engagement with the sacred and the holy. We relate differently to the rules of engagement with religion. It is specifically the people who destroy the holy places of the idols who must be reminded “You shall not do this to God, your Lord.”

This is why I am so bothered when people say that it is permissible to speak Lishon Harah – Evil about someone else – about a specific person who is a sinner: We change the way we relate to rules when we break them.

“It is OK to be nasty to that person because he is not a believer.” Just think of the fervently religious Taliban who destroyed the ancient statues of Buddha. Do they have any rules other than the ones they choose?

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