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"He has Treated God's Word With Contempt"

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
24.06.1999

Summarized by Zev Jacobson

 

     An individual who inadvertently transgresses the injunction against idolatry must bring a sacrifice to achieve atonement.  "However, if a person commits [such an act of idolatry] high-handedly...he is blaspheming God and that person shall be cut off [spiritually] from among his people.  Since he has treated God's word with contempt and violated His commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off [and] his sin shall remain upon him" (Bamidbar 15:29-30)

 

     The intentional sinner is "cut off" not only because of the severity of his action, but also because he sinned "be-yad rama," high-handedly.  It is the spirit of open rebellion against God that leads to excision - "karet" - and not the physical motions of idol-worship alone.

 

     The Gemara (Sanhedrin 99a) lists a series of people who  have "treated God's word with contempt" and are therefore punishable by karet, both in this world and in the World to Come.  We can divide this list into sins relating to mitzvot and those relating to Torah.  But it is difficult to understand why some of these are included.  For example, one of the mitzva transgression which engenders karet is "despising the festivals," which is interpreted as performing melakha (labor) on Chol Ha-moed. Why is one punished so severely for transgressing a Rabbinic enactment?

 

     Once again, the distinction between act and motivation must be drawn.  One who performs melakha on Chol Ha-moed either fails to understand the significance of these days or else is aware of their holiness and flagrantly attempts to desecrate it.  Both attitudes constitute a serious lapse in religious outlook.  But the latter far surpasses the former in terms of "treating God's word with contempt."

 

     Moving to the list of transgressions relating to Torah, the Gemara continues:  "Rabbi Meir says: 'He who learns Torah but does not teach it is called one who despises God's word'... Rabbi Natan says: 'This term refers also to one who has the opportunity to immerse himself in study but fails to do so.'"

 

     One cannot help being shocked and frightened by the words of these two sages.  Neglect of Torah study and failure to teach are crimes that ultimately result in spiritual excision.  Lack of commitment in these areas is tantamount to having contempt for God's word, placing one in the company of those who deny the validity and origin of the Torah (mentioned previously in the Gemara).

 

     One can, of course, find an escape route in the words of Rabbi Natan.  One is guilty only if he has the opportunity to learn but fails to do so.  Many people, however, feel they are forced by circumstances to choose a career other than chinukh;  many also feel forced to live a lifestyle that does not afford the luxury of Torah study, not even for a few hours every week, and are, therefore, are blameless for not learning.

 

     Yet, while it is true that many factors which shape one's life are not within one's control, there is still a great deal that is dictated by one's own decisions.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain, tells of his first meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l.  He had prepared a list of questions to ask the Rebbe, and introduced himself as a student of philosophy at the Cambridge University.  But before he could begin asking his questions, the Rebbe asked him:  "Tell me, what do you do for Yiddishkeit in Cambridge?"

 

     Taken aback, he answered:  "Well, in the situation in which I find myself..."

 

     The Rebbe interrupted:  "One does not find oneself in a situation; one puts oneself in a situation."

 

     One who has chosen a specific career or way of life that does not allow time or peace of mind to study cannot honestly claim to be a victim of circumstances.  If one has opted for a standard of living that demands unceasing effort to maintain it, is the claim that "circumstances do not allow" acceptable?

 

     One for whom Torah study is not a top priority must ask:  "Why?"  Is it perhaps because the value and importance of study are not recognized, shoved aside in favor of other pursuits?  Does the lack of commitment to study and teaching  indicate a fundamental problem in one's religious outlook? Granted, there are mitigating factors, but everyone must confront this issue with honesty and integrity. And, of course, one should not adopt an "all-or-nothing" attitude.

 

     The same type of self-examination must be undertaken by one who learns, but does so half-heartedly.  Limmud Torah involves more than merely collecting information.  It is a process that must permeate the fiber of one's being; one who is not immersed in his study of Torah would do well to consider the cause and thereby effect changes in attitude and behavior.

 

     The level of commitment one shows to actual study betrays one's loyalties.  One who does not possess the courage to engage in self-examination and self-improvement, slow as the process may be, is in spiritual danger.

 

 

(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5755.)

 

 

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