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MIRROR IMAGE

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Entering the amusement park, you wonder excitedly which ride to experiment first. Looking ahead, you lay your eyes on the main attraction: The fun house.

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Entering the amusement park, you wonder excitedly which ride to experiment first. Looking ahead, you lay your eyes on the main attraction: The fun house. You've always enjoyed running within these buildings, looking at yourself in all the bent and twisted mirrors, seeing the world in various dimensionally incorrect stances, and gazing at the other impossible illusions for which the house boasts itself over the other attractions in the park. While the roller-coaster may help you see the world spin, only the fun house will allow you to see it stretched, inverted, and upside-down. This is why they've always intrigued you, and so you decide to try the fun house first.

There are two ideas in this week's Torah portion that caution us of the difficulties that a "fun house effect" could create. The Torah explains to us (Deuteronomy 17:2-5) how to deal with a person who worships strange gods, "the sun. . .the moon, or any celestial body that I [Hashem] have not commanded."

Rabbeinu Bachya, a classic 14th century commentator, asks why the Torah needs to add the seemingly unnecessary words "that I have not commanded". The Torah explicitly spells out, in numerous places, how we are forbidden from any form of idolatry. Obviously Hashem didn't command us to worship them! So why the extra words?

Rabbeinu Bachya answers that the words were added in order to teach us a powerful lesson in human dynamics. In ancient times there was a tremendous desire to worship idols. Because of it, a person who realized that it was wrong to serve idols, would create the following ideology: Just like a king wishes that his officers be honored, since honoring them is also an honor to the king. Similarly, the celestial bodies are, so to speak, officers of Hashem, and by honoring them we are also causing honor to Hashem. From this perspective, worshipping the moon isn't idolatry at all - it's a form of worship to Hashem, and in fact, Hashem wants us to do this!

The Torah's answer to this is no. Don't think that this is a valid form of religious service, for "I have not commanded" it. The Torah realizes that a person may formulate this false ideology, so it adds an entire phrase in order to discount it. Why would a person create this idea? Isn't it clear that worshipping the moon is a form of idolatry? The answer is one word: Bias. Because a person has a desire for idol worship, he is biased, and his emotion will overwhelm his intellect in finding a permittance to the lifestyle that he desires.

Another example of this is told to us at the beginning of the Torah portion. The verse tells us that a judge cannot accept gifts from litigants, because gifts "blind the eyes of the wise, and skew the words of the righteous" (ibid. 16:19). Even the wisest and the most righteous (even Moses himself!) are forbidden from accepting even a few cents because, as Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, tells us, once the bribe is accepted, it's impossible for the judge's heart not to sway to the side of the gift giver.

Rabbi Elchanon Wasserman, a great Torah scholar who perished in the Holocaust, asks how this could be. We're saying that if Moses were to receive any minimal pleasure (even just a few cents) from a litigant, he would therefore make a false judgment? How can we assume that?

Rabbi Wasserman answers with this law of human nature: that the desire influences the intellect. However, this idea must be kept in perspective. A small desire, or bias, will only have a slight influence on a great intellect, while a larger bias will have a greater influence on a lesser intellect. But there always exists some influence.

So a person like Moses would not necessarily make a false judgment were he to accept a small gift. But once he receives it, no matter how small it may be, a slight bias is unavoidably born in his mind. Once that is there, Torah law forbids even him from judging the case.

This is the same concept that we saw earlier: Once a person has a bias - be it a desire for idolatry or a small bribe - he is no longer capable of seeing things in an entirely impartial way. Based on this, a person will create a rationalization that will allow him to live or act in the way that his desire dictates.

The same idea is demonstrated by the mirrors of a fun house. Even though all the mirrors may reflect the same object, they each reflect it in a different, warped way. So too, each of a person's biases are like another dent and another bend in the mirror - they warp and twist a person's perception of reality and make it impossible for him to judge clearly. Be it with religious outlooks, political views, attempts at monetary gain, or anything else, we all fall prey at times to this facet of human emotion. By recognizing it, we can try to be aware of possible biases that we may feel, and avoid any improper results that could come from them. May Hashem help us in this pursuit.

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, attends the Wisconsin Institute of Torah Study (WITS) in Milwaukee.

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