Safeguarding the Covenant

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, focuses primarily on the sin of the Golden Calf and Moses’ successful invocation of G-d’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy to achieve forgiveness for the People of Israel.

Despite the Al-mighty’s decision to forgive the Jewish people, He warns them that if they backslide they will again stir up G-d’s anger and be subject to great punishment. G-d, therefore, informs Moses of those sins that are particularly grievous, and emphasizes the positive deeds that can help Israel remain true to the Al-mighty G-d and maintain their spiritual greatness.

It is in this context, that Moses warns the people in G-d’s name of the particular dangers of idolatry. Seeing the Canaanite nations who presently occupy the land of Israel as a snare who would seduce His people away from G-d, G-d reiterates His promise to Moses to drive out those nations from the land. He emphasizes that the Israelites must be extremely careful about avoiding the temptations that await them in their new homeland.

In Exodus 34:12, G-d tells Moses to say to Israel,הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן תִּכְרֹת בְּרִית לְיוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָּא עָלֶיהָ,  פֶּן יִהְיֶה לְמוֹקֵשׁ בְּקִרְבֶּךָ , Be vigilant, lest you seal a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you come, lest it be a snare among you.

G-d bids the People of Israel to destroy the altars of the heathens, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred trees, and not to prostrate themselves to any alien god. He also warns Israel to make no covenants with the inhabitants of the land and not to stray after their gods or offer sacrifices to them.

In addition, He cautions the people not to consort with the local inhabitants who will invite them to eat from their sacrifices. In Exodus 34:16, the Torah warns that this fraternization will result in , וְלָקַחְתָּ מִבְּנֹתָיו לְבָנֶיךָ, וְזָנוּ בְנֹתָיו אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן, וְהִזְנוּ אֶת בָּנֶיךָ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן , and you will take their daughters for your sons and their daughters will stray after their gods and entice your sons to stray after their gods!

Clearly, the bottom line of the Torah’s message is to avoid social contact with the pagans. This principle is further amplified upon in Deuteronomy 32:38, in Moses’ final admonition to the Jewish people. In poetic form, Moses says, אֲשֶׁר חֵלֶב זְבָחֵימוֹ יֹאכֵלוּ, יִשְׁתּוּ יֵין נְסִיכָם, יָקוּמוּ וְיַעְזְרֻכֶם, יְהִי עֲלֵיכֶם סִתְרָה , “when Israel abandons G-d, the Al-mighty will say, Where is the god in whom you sought refuge, the fat of whose offerings they would eat, they would drink the wine of their libations, let them stand and help you, let them be a shelter for you?”

The rabbis deduce from this that Jews are forbidden to eat the food or drink the wine that is offered to the idols of the heathen world in pagan temples. The purpose of these prohibitions is to entirely avoid any social contact that might lead to intermarriage between Jews and pagans.

The Ohr HaChaim claims that even if the pagans were to sign a covenant and vow not to worship idols and even if they are prepared to observe all the Noahide laws (see Noah 5766-2005), they should not be trusted because they will eventually return to idol worship.

Similarly, the Sforno argues that those who bond with idol worshipers even as a gesture of friendship will eventually come to worship idols themselves. Social contact will invariably lead to intimate relations and result in intermarriage, leading to the decline of Jewish religious observance.

It is from these verses that we learn the laws of Yayin Nesech, יֵיּן נֶסֶךְ and Stam Yaynam, סְתָם יֵינָם , the prohibition against using sacramental wine that has been used in idol worship, and even non-Jewish manufactured wine in general.

When the Torah declared (Leviticus 19:2), קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ , you shall be holy, which the rabbis interpreted to mean, You shall be separate, they knew what they were talking about. The recent studies by the famed sociologist Steven H. Cohen not only confirm the over 70% rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox young Jews, but also their extraordinary attitudinal changes, the precipitous decline in belonging to synagogues and Jewish organizations and their lack of support for the State of Israel.

The story of Purim stands as a bold confirmation of the Torah’s warning. Our rabbis say that the parties that King Ahasuerus hosted for 180 days and for an additional seven days were meant to celebrate the fact that 70 years had passed and the prophecy that the Temple would be rebuilt had not been fulfilled. The King’s parties celebrated the demise of the Jews, yet all the Jews of Persia and Media attended.

It all starts over a glass of wine in Shushan, the capital of Persia, or with a bottle of beer at a football game. A simple gesture of friendship can result, and too often does result, in a total loss to the Jewish community, even among those who grew up religiously observant and had the benefit of an intensive Jewish education.

These words, and the Torah’s warning, which were written and delivered 3,300 years ago, are as relevant today as they were when they were first pronounced.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, February 28, 2018 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, February 28-March 1, 2018.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.