A Curious Commandment

In this week's parsha, there is a commandment which we do not publicize very much, as it does not seem to put us in a very good light. "Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and you shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place"(Deut. 12: 2-3). So, it seems, we must go on a rampage to destroy the abominations of the heathens. The passage continues: "Ye shall not do so unto the L-rd your G-d"(Deut. 12: 4).

Rashi quotes Rabbi Shmuel (in Sifre) as asking: "Why is such a warning necessary? How can we imagine that any Jew could even consider destroying his own holy places?" R. Shmuel questions Moses, however we must question R. Shmuel! For alas, it appears from history that Jews are indeed capable of this. There were Jews who brought Greek idols into the Temple, and even today one reads of Jews damaging synagogues in Israel. R. Shmuel surely realized this, so (following Rashi) we can interpret his kasha as meaning: How can we imagine that THE SAME PEOPLE who destroyed heathen idols need to be warned against damaging Jewish holy objects? Are they not on a mission for the sake of the honor of G-d!

In order to answer this, I'd like to quote from a well known passage in the Shulchan Aruch In the first book, the very first law says that if the performance of a mitzva will embarrass you (for example, davening mincha on a public highway or saying grace after meals at a board meeting, or perhaps sporting a kippa at your place of work), you should still do it. However, the Mishna Brura quotes Beis Yosef as saying that one should nevertheless not go out of your way to antagonize people even in the performance of a mitzva (for example, deliberately davening mincha on a public highway when it is unnecessary), since that will just give one's personality the characteristic of chutzpa ("Yiknehbenafsho midat ha-azut"), which will then be used for less noble purposes.

That is what Moses was concerned about here, and why he felt he had to warn the people. Once they got a taste for pillage and destruction, who knows what it would lead to?

Many of us are probably too gentle to feel comfortable with the breaking of a glass even under a chupa. But once we experience it, some of us might feel a destructive thrill, and then later go on -- who knows? -- to breaking windows.

It is customary for parents to permit, or encourage, children to tell certain types of lies: from white lies, designed out of consideration for guests' feelings, through lying about one's age to get into a movie for half price, to lying over one's income tax return. These lies are all "socially acceptable" -- "Everybody does it!" But the child's neshama (soul) does not distinguish between white and black lies, between "socially acceptable" and "socially unacceptable" lies. It learns simply that lying is acceptable. Later the parents wonder: "How did we raise such a monster?"

We can suppose that the people who vandalize synagogues in Israel were not taught to do so. They did not start out that way. But something in their background must have permitted such behavior for, initially, innocuous, or even praiseworthy, purposes.

If we have to be careful with the means we permit ourselves in the performance of mitzvos, as the Mishna Brura makes clear, how much more careful must we be when a mitzva is not involved!