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Subjective vs Objective Evaluations

In this week’s Torah portion we are confronted with an open and glaring contradiction between Devarim 9:4 and Devarim 9:5 The Torah states:

Do not say in your heart, when Hashem pushes them (the 7 Canaanite nations) away from before you, saying, ‘Because of my righteousness did Hashem bring me to possess this land and because of the wickedness of these nations did Hashem drive them away from before you.’” Not because of your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart are you coming to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations does Hashem, your God, drive them away from you, and in order to establish the word that Hashem swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov.” (Devarim 9:4-5)

So while it is clear that our righteousness is not the factor for our inheritance of the land, yet is it or is it not due to the wickedness of the other nations? To understand the resolution of this apparent contradiction or ambiguity, let us look more closely and carefully at the beginning of verse 4.

“Do not say in your heart…” On this phrase the commentary of Rashi is insightful. Here Rashi explains what a person might think, “that my righteousness and the wickedness of these idol worshiping nations is the cause of our inheritance.” What is Rashi telling us?
The term “heart” used in this verse by Moshe is of course a metaphor for our emotions. He uses it intentionally to point out a very dangerous attitude prevalent amongt many religious people. Emotionally they feel righteous and superior. They attribute their righteousness as the cause for God’s blessings on the nation. In this case their righteousness is the cause for our inheritance of the land of Israel. This outlook is further reinforced when contrasted to the feeling they have towards the idol worshiping nations. Idol worship is after all the antithesis of the most fundamental principle of Judaism, the existence of one, non-physical creator of the universe.

Rashi is teaching us that this comparison of righteousness and wickedness is only an emotional, subjective comparison. Much of Moshe’s final discourse, Sefer Devarim, is spent reviewing all the times and situations in which the nation of Israel was not righteous. He points out where the Israelites rebelled openly against the directives of God. Why does he reiterate these failings of the nation now?

The only way the Jewish people can go forward and establish a truly just society in the land is to first have an honest and objective assessment of their own behavior. Hence, such a comparison between us and them, the righteous people versus the wicked people must also be corrupt and false. If we are not objective about our actions and attitudes but instead entertain a subjective and corrupt view of our own behavior, then our view and consequent comparison to the other people must also be corrupt. One might conclude that if they are being driven out of the land and we are possessing the land, they must be corrupt and we must be righteous.

Along comes verse 5. True we are not righteous but they are still wicked. So a person will conclude the assessment is partially right. No! Our entire framework is corrupt. Verse 5 is being stated from the objective perspective of God. We are not righteous. However, we are fortunate to be the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. It was to them that God made the covenant and promise to possess the land. Such a promise would never have been made to us. But now we are informed that the other nations are objectively wicked. We could never know that. Only through God’s divine revelation of His infinite wisdom and justice to the prophet Moshe could we know that fact of reality. On our own we can never make that evaluation about anyone or any group of people. To ever make such an evaluation about ourselves and/or others is harmful and dangerous in the process of human perfection.

This Shabbat is the second in a series of Shabbatot of “nachamah”, “consolation” that follows Tisha b’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of our Holy Temple. We are also quickly approaching Chodesh Elul which marks the onset of a time period set aside for personal introspection. Let us use the words and warning of this week’s parsha to be mindful of the subjective evaluations we make of ourselves and others. Through this personal reflection may we restore any breaches made with our fellow man based on such subjective evaluations and thereby simultaneously establish a closer relationship with the Almighty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan