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Netzavim-Vayeilech: ‘Perfectly Candid’

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“A few months before I was born, my dad met a stranger who was new to our small Tennessee town. From the beginning, Dad was fascinated with this enchanting newcomer, and soon invited him to live with our family. The stranger was quickly accepted and was around to welcome me into the world a few months later.

“As I grew up I never questioned his place in our family. In my young mind, each member had a special niche. My brother, Bill, five years my senior, was my example. Fran, my younger sister, gave me an opportunity to play ‘big brother’ and develop the art of teasing. My parents were complementary instructors — Mom taught me to love the word of G-d, and Dad taught me to obey it.

“But the stranger was our storyteller. He could weave the most fascinating tales. Adventures, mysteries and comedies were daily conversations. He could hold our whole family spell-bound for hours each evening.

“If I wanted to know about politics, history or science, he knew it all. He knew about the past, understood the present, and seemingly could predict the future. The pictures he could draw were so life like that I would often laugh or cry as I watched.

“He was like a friend to the whole family. He took Dad, Bill and me to our first major league baseball game. He was always encouraging us to see the movies and he even made arrangements to introduce us to several movie stars. My brother and I were deeply impressed by John Wayne in particular.

“The stranger was an incessant talker. Dad didn’t seem to mind-but sometimes Mom would quietly get up, while the rest of us were enthralled with one of his stories of faraway places, go to her room, read her Bible and pray. I wonder now if she ever prayed that the stranger would leave.

“You see, my dad ruled our household with certain moral convictions. But this stranger never felt an obligation to honor them. Profanity, for example, was not allowed in our house– not from us, from our friends or adults. Our longtime visitor, however, used occasional four letter words that burned my ears and made Dad squirm. To my knowledge the stranger was never confronted. My dad was a teetotaler who didn’t permit alcohol in his home – not even for cooking. But the stranger felt like we needed exposure and enlightened us to other ways of life. He offered us beer and other alcoholic beverages often.

“He made cigarettes look tasty, cigars manly, and pipes distinguished. He talked freely (much too freely) about private relationships. His comments were sometimes blatant, sometimes suggestive, and generally embarrassing. I know now that my early concepts of the man-woman relationship were influenced by the stranger.

“As I look back, I believe it was the grace of G-d that the stranger did not influence us more. Time after time he opposed the values of my parents. Yet he was seldom rebuked and never asked to leave.

More than thirty years have passed since the stranger moved in with the young family on Morningside Drive. He is not nearly as intriguing to my dad as he was in those early years. But if I were to walk into my parents’ den today, you would still see him sitting over in a corner, waiting for someone to listen to him talk and watch him draw his pictures.

“His name? We always just called him TV.”

For this commandment that I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant… Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.” (30:11-14)

In discussing the deleterious effect of bribery, the Gemara[1] quotes Rava who explained that bribery unwittingly creates a certain bond between the giver and the recipient, causing a complete impairment of the receiver’s judgment.

The Torah warns emphatically that if a judge accepts a bribe he will be unable to render a proper judicial decision in a case involving the briber. The Gemara further warns that even if the judge is particularly wise, if he accepts a bribe he will inevitably create a certain perverse reasoning which will plague him throughout his life.

The Gemara continues and explains that even the smallest favor or minuscule gift is considered a bribe that brings with it devastating effects.

With this in mind, how it is possible for a person to repent or “see the light?” Every individual is responsible to judge himself, i.e. he must reckon and determine whether his outlook on life and his actions are on par with his obligations. But it is undeniable that a human being is “bribed” by his own desires, negative character traits, and evil inclinations which propel him towards sin. If the subtlest bribe destroys the rationale of even the greatest judge, what hope is there for us in judging ourselves, when we are drowning in a morass of self-deception?

Rav Yosef Elyashiv[2] answers that logically there should indeed be little hope for our spiritual growth. However, the Torah promises us that if we seek the truth G-d will ensure that we not be overwhelmed in the natural manner by our own negative whims and thoughts. This is what the verse means when it states, “It is not hidden from you and it is not distant”, for truthfully it should be too distant to achieve. However, “The matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.” Despite our penchants and proclivities, G-d has invested within us a supernatural ability to transcend and overcome our self-deceit.

Our evil inclination not withstanding, we have the ability to become close with G-d and ascertain the truth. However, we can only achieve that if we are willing to struggle to discover it. The first step is to realize our innate deceptions and then pray to G-d to help us overcome them.

At some point during the school year I read the article at the start of this column to my the tenth grade literature class. My students are always very impressed by the article and enjoy its subtle ironic message. I challenge them to explain what makes the article so brilliant? What wily technique does the author use to drive home his message?

We discuss that if the article had begun with the author stating how terrible television was, the message would be lost.  Because we are so bribed by our inclinations and desires, a person who watches television does not want to hear how terrible it is. He goes through life making up excuses as to why “it’s not really so bad.”

But the author immediately launches into the story, capturing the attention and piquing the interest of the reader. By the time the reader has neared the end of the article he has arrived at his own conclusions about the terrible stranger. He cannot help but wonder why the family sanctioned such an awful influence in their home? If the stranger made the parents nervous why did they not ever demand that the stranger leave?

Then in the final line – nay in the final two letters – of the article the entire story makes sense. And at that moment the potent message of the story is undeniable. It is only in retrospect that the reader realizes who the stranger is and by then it is too late to deny the strong negative thoughts and feelings he had for “the stranger.” The author allows the reader to unwittingly draw his own conclusions about the evils of TV.[3]

It is hard for us to be objective when we judge ourselves. But the Torah assures us that it can be done if one is truly candid with himself and is prepared to battle the falsities within him. If one is up to that challenge he can be confident that, with G-d’s help, he can be successful.

Just prior to his demise Moshe tells his beloved student and successor Yehoshua, “Hashem – it is He Who goes before you; He will be with you; He will not release you nor will He forsake you; do not be afraid and do not be dismayed[4].”

Truthfully Moshe related that message to every single Jew for all time. One need only begin the search earnestly and diligently. But once one has rolled up his sleeves and sets a trajectory in motion, he will realize that he is not alone in his quest and efforts.

 



[1] Kesuvos 105

[2] Divrei Aggadah

[3] See Shmuel 2, chapter 11-12 where the prophet Nosson utilizes a similar tactic in getting Dovid HaMelech to realize the mistake he made.

[4] 31:8

About the Author: Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW is the Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead, as well as Guidance Counselor and fifth grade Rebbe in ASHAR, and Principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor. He can be reached at stamtorah@gmail.com. Visit him on the web at www.stamtorah.info.


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