Mea She’arim 521.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
What is the precise definition of this rather ambiguous, amorphous positive
commandment, “You shall be whole-hearted with the Lord Your God?” How may it be
defined? If we examine the prior and subsequent verses within this passage, the
parameters for defining “whole-hearted” become clearer, albeit not without
difficulties of their own. The subject opens four verses earlier: “When you come
to the Land that the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to act
according to the abominations of those [Canaanite] nations.
not be found among you one who causes his son or daughter to pass through the
fire, one who practices divinations (kosem), an astrologer, one who reads omens
or a sorcerer. For everyone who does these things is an abomination of the Lord,
and because of these abominations the Lord your God banishes (these Canaanite
nations) from before you” allowing you to inherit the land (Deut.
The very next verse commands us to be
And the verse immediately following (18:14) reads, “For
these nations whom you are inheriting hearken to astrologers and diviners, but
as for you, not for such actions has the Lord your God given you [the Canaanite
It would seem from the content of the verses that Israel is
entitled to the Land of Israel because of the “abominable abominations”
practiced by the original inhabitants, the Canaanites, which caused them to
forfeit their rights to the land. When the Bible previously warned us against
acting like the land’s original inhabitants lest we be “vomited out of the
land,” the abominations listed were all sexual acts of incest, adultery or
sodomy (Leviticus 18:1-30), truly abominable actions. But here the
“abominations” are qualitatively different.
To be sure, even in our
previously cited passage, the first of the “abominations” is causing one’s child
to pass through the fire (Deut. 18:10). Burning one’s child alive in sacrifice
to the blood-thirsty god Moloch is truly an abomination. But the subsequent
abominations mentioned immediately following the command to be wholehearted are
astrology and divinations; many great Jewish commentators (such as the Ibn Ezra)
even believed in the efficacy of astrology and omens such as deciding whether to
take a journey based upon a staff falling from one’s hand or a piece of bread
dropping from one’s mouth. Kosem, (Deut.18:10) according to Rashi, is
not so different from the omen thanks to which Eliezer, the much venerated
servant of Abraham chose a suitable bride for Isaac.
Why are these
“abominations”? To answer the question, we must turn back to the Book of Exodus,
where the Bible twice describes the place of the Hebrew encampment before the
splitting of the Re(e)d Sea as being in front of Pi-Hahiroth opposite the “Baal
of the North” (Exodus 14:1). Hahiroth is a probable reference to the ancient
Egyptian god Horus, and Baal was an ancient god of mastery and power. Is it not
strange that the Bible should use centers of idolatry as signposts for the
Hebrew encampment from which a miracle is about to be launched, a wonder which
will conclusively prove that the God of Israel is the true God of the Universe?
It is not at all strange, because here God is teaching a profound lesson about
the fundamental difference between Judaism and idolatry. The Hebrews have
recently emerged from Egyptian servitude, are still in the desert, and they
panic to see that they are being chased by the Egyptian army poised to return
them to Egypt. They cry out to Moses, who tells them to stand their ground and
wait for Divine salvation.
“The Lord will do battle for you; you shall
remain silent” (Exodus 14:14).
Fundamental idolatrous belief is that it
is the gods who wage wars and are ultimately responsible for whatever happens on
earth; the only thing that human beings can do is propitiate the gods, bribe
them as it were, and so attempt to influence the outcome. Moses is still in that
same mode: It is God who acts and the human being who can only pray. The Hebrews
are still suffering from the Egyptian-slave syndrome; they are only at the
“mouth,” at the cusp of Hiroth, freedom (herut in Hebrew).
cry and kvetch to God. The Almighty disagrees; He chides His Master
“Why are you crying out to me in prayer? Speak to the children
of Israel, and let them move.”
God is telling him, let them plunge into
the Re(e)d Sea. I expect My people to initiate action, to function as My true
partners. That’s why I created them in My image. Only when people begin the
process toward freedom, even if it means putting their lives on the line by
plunging into the waves, will He open the gateway for redemption (Exodus 14:15,
Rashi ad loc).
That is why the astrologer and the diviner are
abominations; their assumption is that all events are predetermined, and
therefore can be learned in advance by knowledge of the stars or a proper
interpretation of an omen. These practitioners leave no room for human decision
making, for human input; they deny the major role played by humans in human
affairs. A view that sells the human being short is truly an idolatrous