Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 26 September 2020 / 8 Tishri 5781

From Glory to Demons: The Path of Defection

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Become a Supporter Library Library

In the Song of Ha’azinu, the Torah foretells Israel’s defection: The prophetic rebuke describes the haunted road upon which those travelling away from G-d must go.

Once Israel became “fat” — indulgent in material abundance and pleasure — it paid no heed to G-d, Who had made it what it was. When one is in need, and has no other support, then it is useful to seek support from on High. But after one is back on one’s own feet, having attained freedom and happiness, trust in G-d and faithfulness to His Torah quickly withers. This withering brings a second and third withering in its wake — the moral unraveling of the people, and the ultimate withering of their own serenity.

Whenever [Israel] became fat…he forsook the G-d Who had made him, and regarded as worthless the Rock of his salvation. They impaired His rights with aliens, angering Him with abominations. They made offerings to demons that were non-gods, deities of whom they knew nothing, new ones that came up late, whom your fathers never dreaded. (Devarim 32:15-17)

In the words of the Torah, their departure impaired G-d’s rightful exclusive claim upon them to “others” — who are completely alien to them, to whom they owe nothing and from whom they can expect nothing. They made offerings to these “demons” — invisible forces which even in the deluded imagination of the early pagan nations are not invested with the power of gods.

Rav Hirsch’s contrast between the secure serenity of he who trusts in G-d and the fear of he who turns to these “demons” is too exquisite to paraphrase:

“One certainty alone — the certainty that there is one sole G-d, Who maintains a covenant of intimate closeness with those who do Him homage — sustains man and uplifts him above all the other forces between heaven and earth. This conviction alone frees him from all fear and from all degrading trembling which undermines morality; it alone removes from his heart the fear of real or imaginary forces that threaten man’s prosperity. But once he leaves the service of the one and only G-d, man loses all stay and support; he imagines that he is free, and yet is anxious about and afraid of all the forces of nature and fate — which are truly more powerful than a man who relies only on himself…

“In the light of truth emanating from the one and only G-d, man sees the whole world illumined in the clear light of wisdom and goodness. In this world, all creatures have a good end; and even if, on their way, they pass through darkness and death, pain and ruin, ultimately they are led to a higher state of existence and life, strength and joy, immortality and eternity. In this world, man is a child of his heavenly Father and is given the task of living in His presence a life of duty. Hence, man is close to his Creator even in his lifetime. Clinging to the Hand of the one G-d, he can pass, even through darkness and death, in untroubled serenity toward light and life.

“But if man closes his eyes to this light… His world descends into a dark night filled with demons, real and imaginary. In that case he has only the miner’s lamp of human experience to guide him through the darkness in which he must wrestle with hostile demons for his life and happiness. Then every delight and joy ends for him in disgust and disappointment… In such a life, man is the unhappiest of all creatures because he has the awareness that he is the unhappiest… From the bliss of a world full of G-d’s glory to the pessimism of a world full of demons — that has always been the dismal road taken by Israel’s defection…”

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 32: 15-16

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