Parashat Nisavim- Exposure to Wrong Behavior- Its More Dangerous Than You Think
In Parashat Nisavim we read Moshe’s final exhortation to Beneh Yisrael before his death. In this address to the people, Moshe expresses his concern that some members of the nation may resort to idolatrous worship, and he warns them of the catastrophic consequences of this sin of idolatry.
The question immediately arises as to why such a warning was necessary. The Sages refer to the generation of the wilderness, the generation which was led by Moshe Rabbenu, as “Dor De’a” – the “Generation of Knowledge.” This generation was the wisest and most knowledgeable generation since the beginning of time. They grew up eating the Manna, the bread sent down each morning from the heavens. They ate at God’s table, so-to-speak, each and every day. They were surrounded by the miraculous clouds of glory; they entire existence was supernatural. What’s more, they spent the entire day learning Torah from Moshe Rabbenu. These people were far removed from the vanities of the world. After all, what vanities were accessible to them in the barren, desolate wilderness? They lived an entirely spiritual existence, with God’s presence palpably in their midst, drawing wisdom directly from Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest of all prophets.
And yet, just before his death, Moshe warned them…not to worship idols!
Imagine a Rabbi who is invited to speak to the fifty leading Torah sages in the world. They are all assembled in a room, and this Rabbi is asked to speak. He gets up and declares, “My dear colleagues, I want to urge all of you not to worship Buddha!”
During generation of the wilderness, most of Beneh Yisrael were on or near the level of prophets. They were greater than today’s leading Sadikim. Why was Moshe concerned that they would worship idols?
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides, Spain, 13th century), in his commentary to this Parasha, explains that Beneh Yisrael were at risk because they were exposed to idolatry. As Moshe Rabbenu says to the people in introducing his warning, “For you know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we journeyed among the gentiles whom you passed through, and you saw their despicable and repugnant things, the wood, stone, silver and gold that is with them…” (29:15-16). During their stay in Egypt, and then during their sojourn in the wilderness which brought them near foreign nations, Beneh Yisrael saw idolatry. They were exposed to it. And exposure to sin is dangerous, far more dangerous than we tend to think. Once we see it, even if it initially seems “despicable and repugnant,” as Moshe described, we become desensitized, and we may eventually adopt an accepting attitude toward it.
The Torah in the Book of Bereshit (26:35) tells us of Esav’s marriage to idolatrous women, and the anguish this caused his parents, Yishak and Ribka. Some commentators noted that it appears from the Torah’s formulation that Esav’s marriage caused more grief to Yishak than to Ribka. Ribka had grown up in the home of idolaters, and was therefore accustomed to it, to one extent or another. This exposure to pagan worship as a child made her less sensitive to it, and thus she did not react to her son’s marriage with the same revulsion as Yishak did.
Esav got married at the age of forty – over half a century after Ribka left her family and married Yishak. And yet, her exposure to idolatry as a young child still had an impact. Even after many decades of living together with the Sadik, Yishak, the effects of her childhood influences were not completely abolished.
As great as Beneh Yisrael were at the time of Moshe’s death, he still had reason to fear. They had seen idol worship with their own eyes, and this could very easily lead them to accept it and, ultimately, embrace a pagan lifestyle.
Moshe’s warning to Beneh Yisrael is thus a stern warning to us about the pernicious effects of exposure to sinful behavior. Many people take a cavalier attitude to the inappropriate material seen on television, assuming, wrongly, that it’s just entertainment and will not affect them or their children. Nothing can be further from the truth. Seeing sinful behavior – as is prominently broadcast on the television, internet and other media – can have a disastrous effect upon a person, particularly on children, but even on adults. What we see has an impact, desensitizing us and gradually altering our values and sense of right and wrong.
In particular, I find it baffling that parents give their children computers with internet access in their rooms. What are the parents thinking? It is no secret that the internet contains vast amounts of repulsive material. Do these parents not care what their children are exposed to? How could they be oblivious to the dangers lurking on the internet?
Obviously, we cannot live in a hermetically sealed bubble. We need to be aware of what’s going on around us in the world, and we should be knowledgeable of the news. But we must use discretion in determining what we allow ourselves and our children to be exposed to. And, we must ensure to place ourselves under positive influences, joining Torah classes and groups that perform Misvot, so that these influences will neutralize the negative influences that are so pervasive. This will ensure that we and our children will grow and develop spiritually in spite of the sinful influences that abound, and succeed in our efforts to draw ever closer to our Father in heaven.