Skip to content

Parashat Masei 5774 — 07/23/2014

Parashat Masei 5774 — 07/23/2014

Do not “flatter” [tachanifu] the land in which you live… (Bamidbar 35:33)

And do not defile the land that you inhabit… (Bamidbar 35:34)

“This is a warning to flatterers,” our Sages tell us (Sifri). The Ramban writes, “The Torah [in the preceding verses] forbids us to take ransom for the lives of murderers. Afterwards, it forbids us to flatter them with regard to their positive traits, their power, or their family prestige – even without accepting ransom. For if we flatter them [closing our eyes to their terrible crime], we flatter the land, and the result will be what Yeshayahu prophesied: The land will be deceitful under its inhabitants (24:5). [That is, it will lack fertility.] (Chafetz Chaim)

The reason “flatter” is in quotes is that the plain meaning of the word in this context (as translated by Artscroll) is “bring guilt upon.”  Based on the principle that the sounds of the Hebrew language reflect the reality to which they refer, it behooves us to find a connection between the two meanings of tachanifu.

The context of the verse itself is discussing murder.  It requires us to execute murderers in order to expiate their crime – that is, to remove the negative effects of the murder from the environment (and from the murderer’s soul).  In modern terms we could think of the community’s having “closure” on the incident, but in truth what we have here is more than just a psychological problem.  According to Torah, there is an actual impurity, almost tangible, that poisons the community and the land on which that community lives.  For example, in the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, we are told that if we turn to idols then “…I will close up the heavens and there will be no rain, and the earth will not give forth its produce and you will be quickly lost from upon the good land that Gd has given you.”  Apparently there are very physical effects from wrong action, and corrective action must be taken to “put out the evil from among you.”

Now we can understand that murder is a terrible sin, but why is it compared to flattery?  Flattery is not nice, but in what way is it comparable to taking someone’s life?

First, let’s take a look at where the prohibition of murder is found.  Of course it is the 6th Commandment.  The 10 Commandments were engraved on two stone tablets.  Our Sages teach us that the division into two groups of 5 corresponds to commandments between Gd and humans (bein adam laMakom – the first five) and commandments between people (bein adam l’chaveiro – the second five).  There is a correspondance between the two groups; of interest to us here is that the first “Commandment” – belief in Gd (I am Hashem your Gd) corresponds to the sixth commandment (Thou shalt not murder).  The basis of this correspondance is that since humans are created in Gd’s image, murdering another human being is tantamount to denying the existence of Gd.

Since Gd is the basis of all existence, His existence is the ultimate truth, and therefore denial of Gd’s reality, be it in thought or in action, is the ultimate untruth.  Thus we find idolatry, which is an intellectual denial of Gd, is treated with the same severity as murder, which is an active denial of Gd – those are two of the three cardinal sins for which one must give up one’s life to avoid transgressing.  Since denying Gd moves us to the furthest pole of falsehood, or in other words, the furthest pole of non-existence on the spiritual level, we are commanded to give up our physical existence instead.  Yes, it’s that important.

I think that here is the connection to flattery.  When we flatter someone, we are telling him that he is something that he is not – something grander and more noble of course.  This is a deviation from the truth – in many cases it may be the exact opposite of the truth.  And while we all need to hear the truth, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, very few of us can handle the truth, particularly about ourselves.  Because the truth is, we were placed on this earth in an imperfect state, and tasked with perfecting ourselves, and thereby perfecting the environment – the land we live on, the society in which we live, the planet, and indeed the entire universe.

But in order to perfect ourselves, the first thing we must do is to own up to the truth that we are not yet perfect.  That means that there are things about ourselves that we will not like (and that others may not like very much either), and these of course are exactly the things we need to know about in order to correct them.  Burns wrote: And would some Power the small gift give us / To see ourselves as others see us! (It rhymes and scans better in the original Scots dialect.)  When others offer us the gift of knowledge about ourselves (politely and respectfully of course), it is truly a precious gift, for it can spur us to great self-improvement.  But when all we receive is flattery, we are effectively blinded to our own nature, and therefore to our path to fulfillment.  This, in a sense, is the ultimate “murder,” for when we flatter a person we are killing his soul, by keeping it trapped in the illusions that surround it.

Now we can apply this thinking to the idea of “flattering” the Land.  The Land of Israel is special – it is the land which is under Gd’s direct supervision “from the beginning of the year till it’s end.” (Deut 11:12)  In fact, it is an important part of Gd’s plan to perfect Creation, for it has a special synergy with the Jewish people that allows us to express our special spiritual qualities.  But therefore, its quality is also truth, and if we “flatter” it, by living lives of untruth, then it becomes incapable of sustaining us, and we are forced to leave.

We are now in the midst of the Three Weeks, the period between the fast of 17 Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the loss of our Land and of both Temples.  It is a time of reflection on who we are and who we want to be, individually and as a people.  It’s crucial that we approach this process with our eyes open to the truth.  For the deadliest kind of flattery is when one flatters himself.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 14: The Challenge of the Community, Large and Small (Durban, South Africa, August 1999)

The Jewish community in Durban, South Africa, was small and aging 15 years ago.  From the essay it appears to have had about 3000 people.  In 2004 it was down to 2750, and I couldn’t find a more current figure.  R. Steinsaltz pointed out to his audience that numbers have not been, historically, the determining factor in the health and stature of a Jewish community.  There were only 150 Jewish families in Troyes in the 11th century when Rashi lived there, and only 5000 Jews in Cairo when Rambam lived there (12th century).  A town may have just a small dot on the cartographer’s map, but may have a big, golden circle on Heaven’s map.

What is the difference?  Rabbi Steinsaltz tells his listeners, and all of us, that the difference is the level of commitment to living a Jewish life on the part of each member of the community.  In a community where everyone is contributing, learning, growing, there is hope for the future.  Apathy will kill us quicker than hostility in our environment.  As is the case with many a profound thought, it seems obvious, yet it is often not put into practice.  We should take a hard look at our own communities, and our own involvement in them, and decide which way we want to go.