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Friday Night's Sermon (August 14, 2020): "Not succumbing to pagan rites even today"

This week’s Torah portion is “Re’eh”. Moses is in the process of giving his discourse to the Israelites that are preparing to conquer the Promised Land. Much of Moses’ discourses are warnings.

Part of those discourses are admonitions to not be influenced by the native Canaanite tribes that inhabit the land. Moses warns them not to be lured into their pagan practices and do not accede to any false prophets. They are to completely destroy any remnants of those false religions.

The Torah seems to insinuate that these pagan rites lead to temptations that lead to immoral practices. If the Israelites start to consort with these peoples, they will corrupt them into those pagan practices. We have seen that the Midianites, for example, were sexually immoral and had no respect for the sanctity of the family unit.

We can understand why these peoples would want to bring the Israelites into their fold. They can see that the Israelites are prepared to dispossess them, and this might be a less violent method of preventing bloodshed. The Canaanites would thus be able to defeat the Israelites without raising a sword.

While we view these actions from an historical perspective, how would they apply to us today? While one would be hard pressed to find peoples who engaged in these pagan rites today, how would it apply to Jews in the present-day world?

We look today, to see what message might convey to us here, 3200 years later. We can see how many of the pagan practices involved satisfying cravings of the flesh. After all, since we humans are flesh and operate in the physical, material world, then we would be receptive to things that made the flesh feel good.

We mortals get in trouble when we look to satisfy our physical cravings. Of course, in moderation, there is nothing wrong with good tasting food, thrill rides at an amusement park, etc. The problem involves excess. We know what happens when people start using chemicals or sexual practices to excess. Those things then become the focus of a person’s life.

Perhaps Moses knew this, 3200 years ago. He knew that the Israelites were a passionate people and could easily be led astray through physical pleasures. This is borne out in the third paragraph of the Shema that warns us not to follow our eyes or hearts that we not be led into temptation, but only observe the commandments.

For many of these ancient pagans, satisfying their lust became an integral part of their religious practice. Their rituals were based on that and superstition. They worshipped and catered to natural phenomena and looked for ways to appease out-of-control natural forces by such extreme measures.

Consider that today, we Jews still face the dangers of temptation. We have physical bodies that enjoy pleasure. Many of our commandments are in place to help us moderate those cravings with moral practices.

We enjoy carnal relations, but in the context of marriage. We eat meat, but only certain animals that keep us holy. And we fast on Yom Kippur in part along with repenting to demonstrate to ourselves that if we can overcome the temptations of food, liquids, and physical pleasure for one day, resisting temptation throughout the year is doable.

Today, we must still be on guard. Consider that one of the major reasons why Judaism has so many rituals and commandments is to keep us occupied and always reminding us to not give in to base desires. And faith can be a tricky thing.

What are some modern, contemporary temptations? When we are engaging in business deals, for example, we want the upper hand. We want a sure thing. Any advantage helps. If we know something that our adversary does not, it makes it easier for us to win the deal. It’s a lot harder emotionally to reveal all the factors involved, as Torah tells us, and just know that we’re doing the right thing even if we lose a little bit. It’s hard to anticipate that by being honest, it will make for a longer lasting and more profitable relationship in the long term. And then there is the suspicion that maybe the other person isn’t being completely upfront either and if they aren’t completely honest, why should we be?

Another issue is peer pressure. How many of us have been tempted to go along with the crowd? When we were kids, maybe there were some peers that wanted to steal from a store, just for fun? How about making fun of someone? Even today in a world extant with various ideologies, we should always measure those ideologies against the principles of Torah. While we all have different opinions—and that’s a good thing—let us investigate whether certain ideas have merit; in other words, investigate for ourselves.

Today even as yesterday, we must make sure we study and cling to Torah, that we not be led astray by untoward principles.

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