From HaGaon Rav Yaakov Sasson shlita a grandson of Maran ztvk”l, head of the Yeshiva for Rabbanim Tiferet Rashbi
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
This Shabbat we shall read in the Torah, as we do every year prior to Rosh Hashanah in Parshat Nitzavim, “You know full well that we lived in Egypt, and that we also passed through [the territories of] the nations you encountered. You saw the disgusting, putrid idols that they have, made of wood and stone, silver and gold. Today there must not be among you any man, woman, family or tribe, whose heart strays from Hashem, and who goes and worships the gods of those nations. There must not be among you a root whose fruit is gall and wormwood” (Devarim 29:15-17).
Hashem warns us, lest there is amongst us one person – whether a man or a woman – who in their heart they are drawn after the abominations of the nations, and then is capable of influencing those around him, “like a root whose fruit is gall and wormwood” (Devarim 29:17).
We must contemplate the [precise] words of the passuk. When the Torah explains the danger of someone drawn after idolatrous beliefs, it explains that during our time amongst the other nations, “You saw the disgusting, putrid idols that they have, made of wood and stone, silver and gold” (Devarim 29:16). But we must understand, why does the Torah go to so much trouble to explain the form of the nations’ idols? What difference does it make to us if it is formed of wood or gold?
Rabbi Shalom Schwadron (1912/21-1997) z”l explained in the name of the Rav of Brisk z”l, as follows. When the Jewish People left Egypt they had been distanced from idol worship for one whole year. They saw the 10 plagues, they saw how they weren’t harmed at all by the plagues, afterwards they saw the incredible and awesome splitting of the sea and more besides. If so, for sure at that time, the deities of the nations, appeared disgusting and despicable to them. And so it is written in the Torah, “You saw the disgusting, putrid idols“. But as time passed one day after another, they became accustomed to see these disgusting things, and when a person sees a pleasant form amongst the nations’ gods, then the mind starts thinking that perhaps it isn’t so “disgusting”, and indeed we too have “wood and stone”! And so, the abomination has simply become wood and stone. A neutral thing, lacking value and no longer disgusting. After a while, these disgusting things become “silver and gold”! Splendid and beautiful carvings! See now, that they have been positioned - G-d-for-bid - to lead others astray and to cause others to believe in them.
It is told that in 1955 (5715) Rabbi Shalom Schwadron was traveling in a ship for the first time outside of Israel, the journey was quite long. One morning, he heard a loud commotion and all of the travellers went to the top of the ship to see what was happening, all whilst holding cameras and binoculars. What had happened? Asked Rav Shalom. The men replied that the ship was travelling near the beautiful city of Venice! A city on water! A really splendid thing.
Rav Shalom looked and saw rows of houses, many places of worship, all on water. Nu, nu (okay, okay). For someone like him whose life was full of mussar (ethics) and fear of Heaven, it appeared [nothing more than] a little interesting. Understandably, the many places of worship did not find favour in his eyes. These were his thoughts but not much more.
Rav Shalom related that on his return journey, he again heard a commotion of them all running to the deck, so he too made the effort to see the spectacle of the city’s houses. What is so amazing there? He realised that the houses were perched on stilts, a sight to behold, they built houses near the sea, very nice [he thought].
Some years passed and yet again he found himself on a ship next to the same place. So, he rushed on deck and asked one of the people next to him for his binoculars because he too wanted to see the beautiful city of Venice!
And so we learn that - a great man too - when he sees that everyone is amazed by a particular wonder and he sees again and again the same things, eventually he too is convinced that it really is worth seeing these things.
The Torah teaches us that we must always cleave to our Heritage, we must not become accustomed to the daily grind and likewise not to other people who may be distant from mussar (ethics) and fear of Heaven, dislocated from the appropriate spiritual feelings. For then we are at risk - G-d-for-bid - of deteriorating to the lowest level of “let me add some moisture to this dry [practice]” (Devarim 29:18). As the continuation of the pessukim map out, implying, as explained by Ramban z”l that a person becomes more and more accustomed to sin. To the extent that eventually he develops in himself desires and thoughts of arrogance and depravity that he never previously thought of. And then his punishment for that will be very great.
But, a person who is always careful to constantly remind himself of the truth and guard himself in the purity of proper spiritual thoughts of a person who wishes to serve Hashem, then with this he will merit to be elevated, for he distances himself from others [who have not acted so] and he is most beloved to Hashem.