The Kotzker Rebbe made a few comments I have kept with me through the years. One revolved around the custom to refrain from eating nuts on Rosh HaShanah. Rema offers two reasons for the custom in Orach Chayyim 583;1; the Kotzker works off the first, the numerical value of the letters in egoz, nut, equals seventeen, as does the gematria, the numerical value of the letters in chet, sin (without the aleph, permitted in gematria).
The Kotzker said: “People stay away from nuts because egoz in gematria is chet (sin), but forget chet in gematria is also chet.” They stay away from nuts without also staying away from sin.
I thought of it this week because the first Rashi in Ekev picks up on Moshe Rabbenu’s use of the word ekev for “if,” or “in exchange for.” He suggests Moshe means to imply the rewards being promised depend on Jews’ care with commandments people tend to tread on with their heels (another meaning of ekev). Where I am this week, in this point in my life, I thought of a new version of the Kotzker—in our times, people work to keep those little mitzvot, sometimes forget bigger mitzvot.
This past Shabbat, I was twice confronted with instances of couples who identify in some way with Orthodoxy—the synagogues they attend claim to be Orthodox, for example—who give good cause to assume they are sleeping together before marriage. The self-identifying Orthodox Jews who discussed it in my presence had no negative reaction to the news.
Perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves of the halachic seriousness of the issue. Any knowing instance of bi’at niddah, a man and a woman having sexual relations where the woman has not gone to mikveh after having menstruated, violates a karet prohibition, each instance alone incurring (barring mitigating circumstances) being cut off from the Jewish nation (in various ways, details we need not rehearse here).
The same applies, of course, to willful Shabbat violation, unless a beit din has the power to administer the death penalty. Yet full-fledged Shabbat violation by members of the Orthodox community also often meets the same shrugged unconcern.
It would be bad enough to know many members of a community of Jews were violating karet prohibitions; to my mind, it would call any community seeing this among a noticeable segment of its population to rethink its assumptions of how to build a community of ovdei Hashem.
The conduct itself aside, the breakdown of communal standards exercises me more. We have limited control or influence on fellow Jews’ choices, we have full control over our reactions. The new level I was experiencing was where people spoke about this conduct with no hint or trace of upset, busily not judging others’ conduct.
It reminded me of what I believe is a well-known comment of R. Yitzchak Arama’s in Akeydat Yitzchak, his massive (and massively worthwhile) Torah commentary/ hashkafah of Judaism book (pause for self-promotion: I am currently summarizing the work, in small pieces, published weekly on torahmusings.com, or available by email).
R. Arama was differentiating the people of Giv’a, at the end of the book of Shofetim, whom Hashem does not wipe out with fire and brimstone, from Sodom, whom Hashem does. The places had superficially identical morals, the desire to rape strangers who come to stay with them.
He suggests the people of Giv’a acted as they did in surrender to overwhelming sexual temptation, and were duly punished for the horrific acts their temptation ensnared them to commit. The people of Sodom made a practice of such conduct for economic purposes, to discourage people from coming there, to protect their wealth (rich material for a sermon about immigration). The institutionalization of the sin, making it a legal part of their society’s workings, made it worse.
He gives a shocking contemporary example: in his time, he says, communities licensed prostitutes to serve men, to avoid them having affairs with married women and other prohibited relationships. The communal leaders believed they were performing a religious service, reducing the amount and seriousness of violations being committed. R. Arama pointed out their error: sins woven into the fabric of a society have a weight individuals’ sins do not. Communities must set standards, make sure people do not forget the nature of right and wrong, however far from it they may stray.
Rosh Chodesh Elul and the season of repentance is soon upon us. As Rashi reminds us to care for even the small details, I hope we remember to remember the big significant sins in front of us, and remember to be upset—visibly upset, noticeably upset—every time a Jew, for whatever reason, chooses to violate such sins.