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Parsha Mitzvot: Re’ei: The Wayward City III

We have studied the practical lessons of the Mitzvot/Concepts of the Ir Hanidachat in ‘Beware of Universal Thought’ and ‘Beware Compelling Speakers.’ The latter essay reminded me of a selection from a poem by Goethe:

: Dearest, who is there that can say,
“I believe in God”?
You may ask the priests, the philosophers-
But what they say will only seem to mock you.

Gretchen; So then you don’t believe?

Faust: You lovely vision, don’t mistake me!
Who is there that can name Him?
Who is there that can testify,
“I believe in Him”?
Who is there that can feel
And still dare to say,
“I don’t believe in Him”?
The All-Embracing,
The All-Sustaining.
Does not He embrace, sustain,
You, me, Himself?
Does not the sky arch over us?
Does not the earth stand fast beneath us?
Do not the everlasting stars
Rise over us with friendly glances?
We look into each other’s eyes:
Didn’t all things press in on your heart,
Weaving in everlasting mystery
Invisibly – and visibly – beside you?
Fill your heart with it, fill it to the brim,
And when your bliss has reached its height,
Then call it what you will –
Call it Love! Happiness! Soul! God!
I have no name for it.
Feeling is everything:
The name is sound and smoke,
Overclouding heaven’s flame.

Gretchen: That’s all very fine and good;
Our priest says almost the same thing
But in a little different words.

Faust: Each soul beneath the light
Of heaven says it, each in his own tongue;
Then why not I in mine?

Gretchen: It sounds all right when you say it that way,
But just the same there’s something wrong with it;
Because you’re not Christian.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust, Part One (1808)

“Just the same there’s something wrong with it.” A simple statement of a seemingly simple mind, expressed in simple faith. (Much as my Uncle Noach zt’l’s famous ‘I Am A Frog’ story!)

How did two people convince absolutely every inhabitant of a city to worship idols? We reflected on brainwashing in ‘Beware of Universal Thought,’ and the power of ‘Compelling Speakers,’ which were both focused on the “Lawless men,” who led the city astray. Gretchen’s words remind us to consider how could the entire population of a city be so gullible. Why did they not have Gretchen’s simple but powerful response, “There’s just something wrong with it; Because you’re not Jewish?”

The city was vulnerable before the two lawless men came to town to do their damage. There were no Gretchens in the city. Not a single person understood that there was something wrong with what was being taught. The city was already spiritually dead before they turned to idol worship.

One of the most important lessons I learned from my father zt’l, often repeated by my Rebbi, Harav Yochanan Zweig shlit”a, is that one not only may, one MUST say, “There’s just something wrong,” when he hears a lecture or reads a book, even if as compelling as Faust’s words, that bothers him even if he cannot define what bothers him.

The story of The Wayward City reminds us that we can never afford to ignore that gut feeling. It warns us to beware when we have lost the ability to discern our basic, visceral responses.

This portion, that of Free Choice, repeatedly reminds us that our choices begin deep inside our hearts and souls. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that!

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