Days before Rosh Hashana it’s very appropriate to be reading the Torah portion of Netzavim. In one segment of this week’s Torah portion, it discusses a time in the Land of Israel where people will be going astray and worshipping idols or anything besides Hashem. Hashem will even send warnings through nature for them to repent and fix their ways however they will not heed to the signs as it says, “Perhaps there is among you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day from Hashem, our G-d, to go and worship the deities of those nations. Perhaps there is among you a root that produces hemlock and wormwood. And it will be, when he [such a person] hears the words of this oath, that he will bless himself in his heart, saying, “I will have peace, even if I follow my heart’s desires,” in order to add the [punishment for the] unintentional sins [of this man] to that of [his] intentional sins. Hashem will not be willing to forgive him; rather, then, Hashem’s fury and His zeal will fume against that man, and the entire curse written in this book will rest upon him, and Hashem will obliterate his name from beneath the heavens” (Devarim 26:17-19).
Rav Saadia Gaon, not being as concise as usual, depicts the very decrepit state these people are in. They are rooted in poison and are as bitter as bitter melons. “They calculated in their mind saying, ‘I will only have peace, and I will go according to the desire of my heart in order to rid myself of the draught through getting drunk. Hashem will not be willing to forgive him for this, rather Hashem will get very angry, and His wrath will be upon him and all the curses (from the previous parsha) will cling to him.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It sounds like this person or people are quite delusional! They are steeped in terrible habits and ways, to the extent of believing and worshipping in idolatry, and they are so far gone that the Torah says their roots are bitter and poisonous. Besides that, they seem to be getting hit with violent warnings from Hashem to repent, and they are totally oblivious to the signs and decide to just drink away all their problems and follow whatever naturally gets rid of the present problems. They use whatever their heart desires, to the extent that they tell themselves everything is fine, I am doing nothing wrong. Meaning, they feel they can turn to science and any natural means to find solutions and resolve problems and ailments that are around them. And at the end of the day, they can just drink away all their problems as if they didn’t happen.
At that point, Hashem rains down terror on them, and the Torah goes on to say, “The later generations will say, your children who will arise after you and the foreigner who will come from a distant land, when they will see the plagues of that Land and its illnesses with which Hashem has afflicted it… And all the nations will say, ‘For what reason did Hashem do so to this Land; why this wrathfulness of great anger” (Devarim 29:21-23). The Torah goes on to say that the nations will be told that because these people rebelled against Hashem and His Torah they were severely punished and thrown out of the land of Israel.
The Torah concludes this section by saying, “The hidden are for Hashem, our G-D, but the revealed are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah (29:28). Rav Saadia Gaon says on this pasuk that the later generation, your children that will come afterwards, “shall take mussar, learn a lesson, and should say this, ‘The hidden are for Hashem, our G-D and all that is revealed they are for us and our children…'”
What is this lesson that we, the later generations, are supposed to take to heart, and how is it related to what the earlier generations did wrong?
The root of the problem with the earlier generations was not the idolatry itself, or any other sin they had committed, but the way they handled the situation when Hashem sent signs and warnings to repent. Instead of looking at their inner self and figuring out how to change their own lives, they looked around and tried to fix all the problem that came their way; draught, famine, sickness, etc. using scientific solutions. When those didn’t work, they turned to hallucinogens, but they ignored the real issue. Therefore, the lesson the later generation should take is that the hidden reasons behind why things in this world happen, be it climate change and the weather, pollution, disease etc. is for Hashem to deal with. We have to focus our time and energy into what is revealed to us, which is “to carry out all the words of this Torah.”
This does not mean we must stay ignorant of the sciences and not understand how the human body and the natural world around us works. However, it must be done in the framework of being sure our focus is to learn and observe the Torah, Hashem’s blueprints of creation and the handbook for mankind. If the Torah is our focus and the physical world is just part of our understanding of serving Hashem to the optimum, then the world would be a better place and we would not have to turn to alcohol or other substances to escape reality.
Good Shabbos and a good gabentched year,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder