Shabbat Va'et Hanan

Candles - July 27th @ 7:56pm
Havdalah - July 28th @ 8:51pm

One of the parts of the Torah that anti-Semites love to throw back in our faces is the command given by God to destroy the Canaanite people and their pagan religious idols and places of worship. Which is repeated this week. What kind of God commands us to destroy women and children?

The obvious answer is that we are talking about different times and a different world. After all, it was three and a half thousand years ago. Barely two hundred years ago the United States attacked and destroyed native Americans mercilessly. And we don't need to mention the Nazis, Mexican drug cartels or ISIS. In several countries, women and children today are still being killed because they profess a different religion. To criticize for something that is over three thousand years ago is plain stupid. The Torah was speaking then, not now.

But there is another way of looking at this. At no time did the Israelites actually succeed or even make a serious attempt to destroy the Canaanites unless they attacked first. As was the case with the Amalekites and the Emorites. And the Canaanites and their religion continued to thrive and survive in Judea and Israel for nearly a thousand years after the Torah commanded their destruction. Until the Assyrians under Tiglat Pileser wiped or drove them out.

So how did the Israelites understand the command of the Torah? I think they understood it both metaphorically and practically.

Metaphorically God is saying that the Canaanites presented an existential threat to the Israelites and the Torah because of their different culture, their immorality and corruption. And as long as they were there, that threat would remain. As indeed it did and many Israelite and Judean kings kept on falling back into Canaanite paganism, even turning the Temple into a place idolatry. Which ultimately led to the destruction of the Israelite kingdoms.

On the practical side, the Torah actually says that God would not get rid of the Canaanites right away because de-populating a vast area could be harmful both ecologically and defensively. So that the Torah itself recognizes the need for compromise. It recognizes that even if it presents us with ideals and commands, most of us are going to be unable to live up to them. It is not a perfect world.

The Canaanites were the symbol of every culture we come up against. Their values are not ours. And yet for good practical reasons, many of us continue to live amongst other cultures and nations. Even if living in our own country is the ideal, we may have to compromise and we always did since the Babylonian exile. And yet we see that when we do unless we hold firmly to our own values we will indeed be swallowed up. Millions of us will lose our Jewish identity as has happened in the past, many times.

The Torah was warning us of the dangers of being influenced and uses graphic language to stress how serious the challenge was…and remains.