What happens when you make a solemn promise while secretly planning to betray it?
Moses announces in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, that as soon as the Israelites cross the Jordan they must enact a ritual in which they all say “amen” to twelve declarations. Each declaration begins “Cursed be the one who—”, but since the people say “amen” at the end of each one, they are actually making covenantal vows. (See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.) Thus the whole community must vow to refrain from secretly worshiping idols, to follow six rules about treating other people ethically, to refrain from sex with beasts, to avoid three kinds of incest, and to uphold the teaching (torah) of God.1
Moses says in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”) that the vows cover everyone: men, women, children, strangers who joined the Israelites leaving Egypt, and everyone’s future descendants. Then he reminds the people that they vowed to give up all gods except the one God of Israel.
What if there is among you a man or a woman or a clan or a tribe whose mind is turning this day away from God, our God, to go serve the gods of those nations? What if there is a root bearing the fruit of rosh and la-anah? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:17)
rosh (רֺאשׁ) = poison—sometimes from a plant (perhaps poison hemlock, a highly toxic plant different from a hemlock tree), sometimes from snake venom.2
la-anah (לַעֲנָה) = wormwood (Artemisia absinthium): a plant used to add a bitter flavor to drinks. (Excess doses of wormwood cause convulsions.)
People who swear fealty to one God while secretly resolving to serve other gods are compared to roots hidden in the ground that inevitably grow into like rosh and la-anah.3 People living a lie may believe they are safe, but their deeds will result in bitterness and poison, for them and the people around them.
And it might be, when one hears the words of this curse, then one will call oneself blessed in one’s mind, saying: “All will be well with me, even though I go with the stubbornness of my mind”—with regard to sefot the drenched with the dry. (Deuteronomy 29:18)
sefot (סְפוֹת) = sweeping away, destroying; or sweeping together, heaping up. (Either kind of sweeping is a prelude to doom in at least 17 of the 20 times a form of this verb appears in the Hebrew Bible.)
Again the Torah uses vivid language to bring the warning to life, though the phrase “with regard to sefot the drenched with the dry” is more ambiguous. One interpretation is that God punishes all the misdeeds of secret idolaters harshly: the inadvertent misdeeds they do out of carelessness, as if they were drunk (drenched) swept together with the deliberate misdeeds they commit because they are thirsty (dry), i.e. craving the forbidden thing.4
Another is that the clandestine idolaters (the dry) expect to live well by freeloading on the virtues of others (the drenched); they assume that if the community in general is honest and good, God will not single them out for punishment.5
One can also read the verse as a warning that when secret idolaters anger God, God is likely to sweep away everyone, the drenched along with the dry. By any interpretation, all will not be well with the idolater.
God will not be willing to forgive him. For that is when God’s nose will smoke, and [God] will be zealous against that man, and these bad results written in this book will crouch down over him, and [God] will wipe out his name from under the heavens. And [God] will separate him out from all the tribes of Israel for misfortune, according to all the oaths of the covenant in the book of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 29:19-20)
Moses then predicts two misfortunes: an increase in diseases, and devastation of the land belonging to the individual, clan, or tribe that continues worshiping idols despite the covenant with God.
Today we see an increase in devastation of land all over the world, since our air pollution is changing climates and causing bigger storms and floods and forest fires (and this is just the tip of the melting iceberg). But although many countries have laws limiting pollution somewhat, humans are barely beginning to consider a covenant requiring everyone to serve the health of our God-given planet. And there is nothing secret about the thirst for more money and power that leads people with authority to ignore pollution.
But the warning in the portion Nitzavim also applies to millions of individual vows: oaths of office, business contracts, marriage vows and promises to partners, public moral standards for authorities. All too often people deliberately violate these vows, reassuring themselves that no one will find out.
Do these secret sins lead to rosh and la-anah, poison and bitterness?
I believe the answer is yes. Human beings (apart from the rare amoral sociopath) have a built-in desire for integrity. We want family, friends, and leaders we can trust to be honest, trust to be who they appear to be. We want to be trustworthy ourselves.
And we are also thirsty for sensual delights, addictions, luxuries, power, fame, even the thrill of getting away with something.
When we discover someone has fooled us with a false front we feel outraged, then bitter. We can go into denial, but consciously or unconsciously we will abandon or otherwise punish the one who betrayed us.
The secret sinner can also go into denial, saying “All will be well with me” or “It’s not really my fault” or “Just one more time”. But even before anyone uncovers the lie, the liar lives with a nagging guilt, a betrayal of the divine will within, a poison that seeps through the wall of denial.
This week’s Torah portion gives hope to all of us who pretend to be saintly, but secretly serve the “gods” we promised to avoid. Moses says:
And you will turn back to God, your god, and you will listen to [God’s] voice as everything that I commanded you this day, you and your children, with all your mind and with all your soul. Then God, your god, will turn around your condition and have compassion on you… (Deuteronomy 30:2-3)
We can stop and do teshuvah, returning to God, turning back to the right path. One can do teshuvah at any time, but we Jews also dedicate the month before Rosh Hashanah (Elul) and the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to examining our behavior during the past year, apologizing to people we have harmed, correcting what we can, and turning back to God. This is a time to recognize and atone for the vows you have secretly broken. This is a time to repent and make honest vows to the divine within.
May we all face ourselves and the divine voice within. May we all turn around and become whole.
- Deuteronomy 27:11-26. Joshua 24:1-28 reports that a version of this ceremony was carried out at Shechem, the location of the two hills (Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal) that Moses specified in Deuteronomy.
- Rosh (רֺאשׁ) = poison and rosh (רֺאשׁ) = head are spelled the same way, but the two words are merely homonyms.
- The pairing of rosh and la-anah is a Biblical idiom also used in Amos 6:11-12, Jeremiah 9:13-14 and 23:15, and Lamentations 3:19-20. In these instances, God punishes the two Israelite kingdoms for worshiping other gods by letting invading armies conquer them; metaphorically, God is feeding them la-anah and making them drink water of rosh.
- Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yistchaki) cites Onkelos in this interpretation.
- “Though God may have no intention of watering him with the bounty of His blessings, he must willy-nilly enjoy them as part of the community which receives them. The phrase ‘I shall have peace’ implies therefore two things: (1) the excluding himself from the community in respect of entering into the covenant and the curses; (2) saving himself from retribution because he is part of the community. (Akedat Yizhak)” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim, translated by Aryeh Newman, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 306)