SALT - Monday 20 Av 5780 - August 10, 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Moshe instructs the people in Parashat Re’ei that after they take possession of the Land of Israel, they must destroy all the sites where the Canaanites had worshipped their deities, which were found “on the high mountains and on the hills, and under every lush tree” (12:3).  He then warns, “Do not do such for the Lord your God.  Rather, to the place which the Lord your God shall choose…there you shall bring your burnt-offerings…” (12:4-6).  Rashi explains that the warning, “Do not do such for the Lord your God” refers to the aforementioned practice of the pagans to set up sites of ritual worship throughout the country.  Benei Yisrael were to designate only a single site for sacrifices, a site which God Himself would choose.  Of course, this ultimately was the site of the Beit Ha-mikdash in Jerusalem.
            However, Rashi also cites a different explanation, one which appears in the Gemara (Makkot 22a), according to which the command “Do not do such for the Lord your God” means that we must not dismantle or deface sacred artifacts.  After instructing Benei Yisrael to destroy the sites of pagan worship, Moshe warns them not to do anything destructive to articles of sanctity, such as the Beit Ha-mikdash or its furnishings, or sacred text, such as Names of God.  Accordingly, the Rambam lists as one of the Torah’s prohibitions (lo ta’aseh 65) the command not to destroy sacred articles, referencing this verse as the source.
            The question arises as to how to explain, according to this halakhic reading of the verse, its connection with the next verses – “Rather, to the place which the Lord your God shall choose…there you shall bring your burnt-offerings…”  If the command “Lo ta’asun kein” (“Do not do such”) refers to the destruction of sacred articles, then why would Moshe then continue by telling the people, “Rather, to the place which the Lord your God shall choose”?
            Chida, in his Nachal Kedumim, cites a creative answer to this question, suggesting that according to the Gemara’s halakhic interpretation of this verse, the next verse speaks of the lone exception to the rule forbidding the destruction of sacred articles.  There is one instance when the Torah not only permits, but requires, erasing God’s Name, and that is during the sota ceremony, when a husband suspects his wife of infidelity.  Under certain conditions, the husband would have to bring his wife to the Beit Ha-mikdash, and a special ceremony – which included the erasure of text that included God’s Name – would be conducted to determine the wife’s innocence or guilt.  The Gemara (Sukka 53a) viewed this law as reflecting the great importance the Torah accords to peaceful relations between husband and wife, as God commanded that His Name should be erased in order to affirm the suspected wife’s innocence and thereby repair the strained relationship.  Thus, Chida cites a source explaining that after the Torah forbids destroying sacred property, including the erasure of sacred text, it adds, “Rather, to the place which the Lord your God shall choose,” emphasizing that erasing God’s Name is allowed only in the Mikdash.  It is only under the specific circumstances of the sota ritual that the Torah authorizes the extraordinary measure of erasing God’s Name.  One might have thought that this aspect of the sota ritual establishes a general precedent allowing anything, even the drastic measure of erasing God’s Name, for the lofty purpose of easing tensions between a husband and wife.  We might have concluded that for the sake of peace and harmony, we can do away with the Torah’s rules – pointing to the procedure in the case of a sota as establishing that peaceful relations take precedence over all Torah law.  Therefore, the Torah here emphasizes that the extraordinary provision in the case of a sota marks a striking exception – one which indeed demonstrates the great importance of marital harmony, and of peaceful relations among people generally, but which must not be used as a basis for recklessly compromising religious standards for the sake of peace.