Nitzivim - Garrisons
The theme of the beginning of the portion of the Torah known as Nitzivim (Deuteronomy 29) is “secret sins” versus “do the right thing.”
“Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations — perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood. 18 When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, "I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart" — to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike. 19 The Lord will never forgive him; rather will the Lord's anger and passion rage against that man, till every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon him, and the Lord blots out his name from under heaven.”
When Moses warns the people of Israel about the dangers of “serving the gods of the nations” I’m sure most of us think, “I only worship the one God” I’m not in danger of having a heart of “poison weed (also known as Gall) and Wormwood”. But of course we are surrounded by the results of folks who think that they are immune from the rules that apply to everyone else.
Unfortunately these folks often try to conceal their true feelings and beliefs. But it is obvious in their actions. How many people we know worship the stars in Hollywood or the dollar? How much better would this world be if folks would apply the principles of justice to their business dealings or their political acts? We can’t know what kind of “gall and wormwood” is in someone’s heart until it comes out in something they do, but such behavior affects us too because God does know and because as Rashi notes; people who have hearts of “wormwood and gall” tend to increase evil among us.
This passage also says: “Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.” So this gives us one guideline for dealing with the potential gall and wormwood in our own hearts. When I look at my own heart and see anger rising, jealousy, frustration, or rage; I know that sooner or later my hidden feelings are going to surge out and cause me to do some overt thing that is really going to mess me up. It comes down to where is my heart centered? Is it centered on the pursuit of enlightenment and awakening, or am I worshipping money and power? Am I focused on spiritual improvement and love for God and others, or am I consumed with lust for the God of wealth and status? What do I really need and why should I pursue it? If our foundations are solid, then our hearts won’t be of “gall and wormwood” anymore. But what secures that?
The Hasidim believed that there were two things that could give us strong foundations: Respect for truth and Love of God (Ahavat Hashem), which equals love of the Law (Ahavat Torah), which equals love of ones fellow man (Ahavat Israel. It is community and love for each other flowing out of respect for the Rules that make that community what it is that can give us the foundation for a life time of faith and learning. And it is friendship that is the basis for all these loves, because we build our love for Israel on a foundation of loving one another.[Source Somewhere A Master -- Elie Wiesel]
But of course that love for community can also be a basis for trouble too. Too often a love for our own friends, our own causes, makes us forget that it is God’s laws that apply, not the ones we make up, or even our own interpretations of them. Gods laws aren’t what we tell each other they are, they are what the ineffable one decrees in actuality. They are reality not some codice. None of us can afford to fancy ourselves immune to the corrupting influences of pride, vanity, or simple misunderstanding on ourselves and our communities because that leads to misunderstanding and delusion.
Ellie Wiesel, writing about the historical fight between the Hasidim and the Gaon of Vilnius writes “The ancient Sages Shammai and Hillel differed in most areas of Jewish life, yet they maintained relations of mutual esteem and affection.” “why was it that no authoritative voice was heard … to proclaim that both the words of the Besht and the Gaon of Vilna reflected Gods living truth?”
I would submit that most of our historical conflict start from the secret sins of pride and fear that prevent us from being able to communicate with one another without conflict and that if we simply could take the time to get to know one another, be humble about our knowledge, and agree to learn from one another, we’d have fewer overt sins because our secret sins would no longer come from hearts of “wormwood and gall” and we’d stop being afraid to be friends. The literature is meant to be understood, not taken out of context, or used as a pretext for violent behavior. And the temptation to pride is strongest in political and religious leaders -- so we need to learn to spot it in others as well.
Of course once wormwood and gall are in the heart, they tend to grow and push aside any genuine friendship and mutual respect and replace it with demagoguery, egoistic assertions that “I’m right and you are wrong” and vilification. Thus the secret acts that God punishes flow into very overt misdeeds that bring about our own problems and that can utterly destroy people and communities. They don’t stay secret very long.
Dogma is the development of rigid doctrines governed by authority of men. Men are fallible. Authority is the assertion of men’s opinion over spiritual matters that they can dictate either/or what God says, or what is meant by scripture. Dogmatic people are so arrogant they try to bind future generation to interpretations and arbitrary understandings as if they were God. They usually have good sounding reasons. But the results of arrogant dogmas are all around us in tyranny, oppression, poverty and ignorance. It is our duty to redeem them by digging out the diseased wood (wormwood) and removing the Gall. Then their original context can be understood and their wisdom applied to the present. Not always an easy thing -- but a duty of any spiritual person. Because with religious doctrine, wormwood and gall is also the ossification of what had been legitimate and living teachings into the lifeless dead hand of authority and dogma. Every generation has the duty to bring their literature alive so that it can teach and guide present generations not enslave and oppress them.
Once one understands that religious literature is literature; not history, a compendium of scientific facts, or necessarily direct truths about material reality, one can both appreciate all religious literature and see revealed the monstrous nakedness of most people claiming religious authority. The Bible doesn’t necessarily say what people claim it says. Because, it was written down by men, God didn’t necessarily say that because he told Moses so and so, that we are to treat modern people the same way. If God says to do something and we are part of a religion, there must be some reason. If God appears to be saying something not true, then the liar is not God, it is the person's understanding of what is being said or the context.
The source of both spiritual enlightenment and humility is when people realize that even if scripture says something, that doesn’t automatically make it the right thing to do. Scripture refers to spiritual social and conventional beliefs and practices at some point in time; the other pertains to the rock of actual current reality. Those who would distort religion for personal advantage can always use religion the way a ransomer uses the words in the newspaper to fashion a ransom note. But they are just liars. Just because the Bible has God telling people they should stone for certain sins, doesn’t mean that is an appropriate punishment for us, or even that we are, any of us, qualified to render such judgment. Both the ancient Rabbis, and the founder of Christianity understood this when they said "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." The most grievious sins are the secret ones, and the "gall and wormwood" that causes people to disdain others or be too certain that they are always right and others are wrong.