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Nitzavim 5782              September 24, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

 Shabbat Shalom,

     As we rapidly approach the end of the Torah, we are only two small parshiyot away, this short parsha, Nitzavim, has the privilege of picking up the speech of Moshe, right after Moshe articulated all the terrible punishments that would come if we did not obey God’s Torah. Last week, in Parshat Ki Tavo, we had that seemingly endless list of dire consequences that would follow if we ignored God and the Torah that God has given us.

     In this week’s parsha, Nitzavim, we find that there are no exceptions to these blessings or curses. This is how the parsha opens; I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God and with those who are not with us here this day. Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from our God to go and worship the gods of those nations—perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood. When hearing the words of these sanctions, they may imagine a special immunity, thinking, “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart”—to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.

     I have often said that human beings have an infinite capacity to delude themselves. When we want to do something bad enough, even if we are consciously aware that such an action is immoral, dangerous, impossible, or forbidden, we still think that the rules do not apply to us. We create a fantasy that the law, no matter if the law of physics, the law of God or secular law, we delude ourselves that what we are doing is different enough that we won’t get into trouble and we won’t get hurt. “After all,” goes our delusional reasoning, “I am just one person, who is going to notice or care if what I do is wrong?”

     Our parsha notes two problems with this kind of thinking. The first problem is that it is not about just one person sinning. It is true, there is only one “willful heart,” and we think that since it only affects us, then nobody cares, but Nitzavim notes that when such a person sins, everyone is punished. The list of curses in last week’s parsha are not things that affect only one person. They are disasters that will befall the entire nation if just one person sins. This may seem unfair to our modern sensibilities, but in reality, we see it around us every day. It only takes one person to pour their used motor oil down a storm drain and it pollutes an entire stream making it unfit for human use and for aquatic life. It does not take much pollution to make some place uninhabitable. Often all it takes is for people to see one person getting away with something and then everyone thinks that they can get away with it too. Thus, one person sinning can lead a whole city of people astray. When it comes to Torah, what we personally do, does indeed affect many other people, moist and dry alike.

     Which brings us to “poison weeds and wormwood.” Nobody likes to have weeds in their yard. Nobody likes it because eventually the weeds take over the entire lawn. This is the second issue when it comes to delusional thinking, eventually it takes over everything. In this country we know exactly what a big lie can do. One lie and if it is big enough, then it can spread all through society. Nazi Germany was the first to take advantage of this quirk in human nature. If we repeat a lie often enough, eventually people will believe it is true. For Nazi Germany, the big lie was that Jews were the reason for all of Germany’s problems. It made it possible to arrest all Jews, put them in ghettos and then send them by cattle car to extermination camps where the Jews could be killed.

     We all know that politicians lie. To win an election over an opponent, one must stretch the truth quite a bit. Information has to be given a spin, a favorable approach to the information. Right now, if you watch certain television stations, you will see a commercial about dairy farmers who claim they are doing so much for the environment. They are using less energy to produce their dairy products. They are reducing their carbon footprint. It is all very cheerful and probably true, except, the cows they use to produce their dairy products also produce a lot of methane gas, a key component of greenhouse gasses. In other words, if you want to get your word out, you might let everyone know the good stuff, but the problems have to be covered up or concealed in some other way. A big lie, however, is different. It is, by design, able to cover up the truth. It wears the clothing of truth. It looks true, it sounds true, and everyone knows about it so it must be true. And yet it is still a lie, designed to make people believe it as if it were true. Conspiracy theories are big lies that have not yet grown up. They imitate scientific theories, but they have no basis in facts.

     Lies are like weeds; they need to be pulled up from the garden. We must get down with both hands and pull them out by their roots. Nitzavim is telling us that we cannot let people tainted with idolatry continue to live among us. They are poison weeds and wormwood; they can contaminate all of society and bring down the curses on us all. Our parsha would have us remove such people from society lest we all be ruined. As the great modern philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We must be responsible for those who would traffic in lies and sever their connections to those who believe in the truth.

     The issue is that if one person is untrustworthy, then it will make all people less trusting of everyone. The Rabbis tell a story of a town called Kushta, where people never grew old and never died. When word of this magical place came to an evil king, he became determined to find out the secret of why the people of Kushta never died. He sent spies to discover their secret, but they discovered nothing so the king himself went to the town, stood up in the town square, held up a bag of gold and announced, “I will give this bag of gold to anyone who can tell me why the people of this town live so long.” The people gathered around him. They had never really thought about why they lived so long. Finally, a man said, “This town is called Kushta, which in our language means “truth.” We live so long because here, everyone always tells the truth.”

     The king was not happy with that answer. It was too simple an answer and too hard to live up to, so the king got on his horse and rode away. “The gold!??” the people cried, but the king had no intention of paying for information he didn’t like. When he arrived back in his hometown, the horse was carrying the dead body of the king. The king who had dared to lie in the town called Kushta had forfeited his soul. But an odd thing also happened to the people of Kushta. Once a lie had been told, the people began to get older and die. With the spell (if it was a spell) of truth broken, the people of Kushta no longer trusted each other to tell the truth. And today, they say, the people of Kushta are no different than the people of any other town.

     Once the idea of a lie is introduced into a society, it does not matter if what is said is the truth or not. The trust is broken. The poison spreads and even the people who tell the truth are no longer believed. Lies masquerade as the truth but they also try and define the truth as a lie. If we can’t trust everything, then we can’t trust anything. Society begins to unravel until there is nothing left to hold us together. The land begins to fill with the curses of Ki Tavo.

     Moshe knows his people. They will agree to the terms of the Torah but eventually there will be some who will believe in some other pagan idea and begin to spread the lies about other gods and their power to make one rich and powerful. The poison weeds spread and only a concerted effort to rid the land of the poison will save the society and the country. Telling the truth is not enough to stop these lies, what we need is to speak up and confront those who would undermine the trust that makes our community whole. We need to speak up when we hear something we know is not true. We need to confront those who would spread lies and we need to support all those who work in the face of the lies and threats so they can go about doing what is critical for our country; fair elections, public health, historic records and bringing people together to solve real problems that have long plagued our country.

     Nitzavim reminds us that we really have no other choice. If we wish to banish the dark curses, we need to do all we can to bring the light of truth into the world.

     May God help us speak up for Torah and to speak up for truth as we say …

Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and L’shana Tova

Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783