Three Culprits

Parshat Ki Tetze

By: Rabbi David Charlop

One of the methods the Torah uses to teach us important lessons is the intentional placement of two apparently unrelated topics next to each other. The concept that not only the words, but also the order of the Torah, is crucial is found in many places throughout the Chumash.

One example, found at the end of this week's Parsha, is the connection between two seemingly disparate topics. The final topic of this week's Parsha is the obligation to fight against our enemy Amalek. We are commanded not to forget or forgive their unprovoked and ruthless attack against us soon after we left Egypt. However, immediately proceeding this mitzvah is the requirement to have proper weights and measures. This prohibition includes not only using improper weights and measures but even owning them since we may come to use them. Why are these two topics placed together?

The juxtaposition is explained by the great commentator Rashi, that if we are not careful about faulty weights and measures then we should be worried about our enemy Amalek attacking us.

This comment seems difficult to understand. What do weights and measures have to do with Amalek? Aren't there more severe transgressions that could cause an attack of our arch-enemy?

In addition, while explaining the severity of improper weights and measures, the Talmud says something truly baffling. The Sages teach us that improper weights and measures are worse than prohibited relationships. How could the Talmud compare something as severe as prohibited relations with something which, although wrong, is apparently not as serious? What could such a statement possibly mean?

The great Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the "Natziv" and head of the great Volozhin Yeshiva in Lithuania at the turn of the last century, provides a penetrating insight. He explains that there are three basic types of prohibitions.

One is based on mistaken beliefs and outlooks, the second relates to flawed character traits, and the third are those motivated by physical desire.

The first type is an expression of a distortion or misrepresentation of the truth of Hashem's unity and the fact that only He created, recreates, and sustains the world. The worst expression of this sort of intellectual mistake is idol worship. However if we analyze the nature of idol worship we can find many commandments which could be viewed as sub-sets of this type of mistaken ideology. For example, if a person works on Shabbos because he believes that Hashem can't provide for him unless he works seven days a week, this smacks of idol worship. He falsely believes that the Infinite Creator can't provide for him unless he works on Shabbos. Again, it's obviously not idol worship but there is a direct correlation between the two.

The second category is comprised of those transgressions based on flaws in character. The worst of this category is murder. A person can not control his anger and he ends up expressing that anger by killing the person he sees as its cause. Here also there are many sub-categories, for example Loshon Hara (speaking negatively about someone). Reuven feels mistreated or slighted in some way by Shimon. Reuven then spreads evil reports, both true or false, against Shimon, and, in his anger, feels fully justified to demean Shimon. Reuven's actions, of course, are based on bad character traits.

The third type relates to the prohibitions based on physical desire or lust, the worst being prohibited relationships. Here too, a seemingly less serious offense can be considered an offshoot of prohibited relationships. A person might be careful about prohibited relationships but he doesn't want to hold himself back from a cheeseburger or other prohibited delights. His cravings win out over his knowledge that he shouldn't be eating non-kosher food. This eating, although not as severe as prohibited relations, is also a sub-category and is motivated by uncontrolled physical desires.

So if we analyze all of the prohibitions in the Torah, every single one will fall into one of these three categories. (Think about it and try it yourself.)

Which of these three is the worst? #1-the intellectual mistakes, #2-the flawed character traits, or #3-uncontrolled physical desire?

Rabbi Berlin says that the worst is the intellectual mistakes, the root of idol worship. Without a proper understanding of the world, our whole existence is skewed. All other prohibitions only make sense if there is a Lawgiver and responsibilities to keep His laws. Not believing in a Creator or limiting His greatness undermines our living a purposeful life on this planet.

There are two types of theft. One falls under category number three and the other falls under category number one. Most people steal because they see something they want. It's based on a desire to own the item. This is a sub-category of wanting physical satisfaction which falls under the category of physical attraction exemplified by prohibited relationships. However there is another type of stealing based on a lack of faith. If a person has improper weights and measures it's because he feels he can't make a living unless he cheats his customers. He believes that without his trickery Hashem can't provide the livelihood he needs. This is a sub-category of idol worship, a misunderstanding of Hashem's ability to provide for each and every one of us.

Going back to the Talmud's statement that improper weights and measures are worse than prohibited relationships, we now have a new understanding of this comparison. The essence of the transgression of weights and measures (being a type 1 prohibition) is worse than prohibited relationships (a type 3 prohibition). Of course, on the level of punishment in Jewish court, prohibited relationships are worse but in the anatomy of the act the Sages are telling us that, on a certain level, weights and measures are more severe.

Our first encounter with Amalek was when we complained and asked "Is Hashem here with us?". Our lack of faith was the cause that allowed our enemy to attack. That same lack of faith is expressed in improper weights and measures. We think that only with a little cheating can we make a living. That, the Torah says, is idol worship. That lack of faith is, in essence, no different than our forefathers' lack of faith after seeing the miracles of the Exodus. That is why Rashi tells us that if we use improper weights and measures we should be afraid of our enemy Amalek, because using faulty weights and measures is an echo of when we asked the question "is Hashem here with us?".

May Hashem help us be honest in understanding all aspects of our spiritual life and to search for the core of our mistakes. With that proper Torah perspective may we uproot our shortcomings from their source and purify our service to Hashem.

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