By R’ Mordechai Young
I once had a comb that was simple but efficient. One day, I noticed a few small words written on it. Those words presented a huge challenge. They read, “The Unbreakable Comb.” It was a good comb, but the challenge was more enticing than the potential demise of the item. It was inevitable: the comb versus me. The first few rounds had the comb winning. However, with pure determination to win this battle, the fight continued. I was getting tired and my confidence was waning, but I drew on past experiences to not give up. I remembered the times my parents wondered how I managed to break or ruin something, so I knew I had it in me. I did win this battle and proved the comb incorrect. That was quite rewarding … and then I needed a new comb.
In Parashas Re’eh, the topic of a wayward city is discussed. It is a city in which the majority of its inhabitants worship idols. Rashi teaches that this applies only when men who live there lead it astray. The pasuk states to investigate the matter well and verify the truth of the city’s actions. The usual punishment for avodah zarah was stoning. Here the Torah teaches that the city residents would warrant beheading. The possessions from the city were not allowed to be kept, but had to be destroyed.
The Torah states, with reference to destroying the city and removing Hashem’s anger, “Hashem will give you mercy and be merciful upon you.” The Ohr HaChaim explains the double use of the word “mercy.” Since we are commanded to destroy the whole city, this action will bring forth the middah of cruelty in the hearts of people. As a repercussion, the middah of mercy will leave their hearts. In response to this, the pasuk states that Hashem will give them mercy, since the cruelty that will develop in them will need a strong measurement of mercy to counteract it.
The last pasuk (13:19) on this topic states that we listen to Hashem, our G-d, to guard all of his mitzvos. The Ohr HaChaim quotes the Gemara Sanhedrin 111b that when they fulfilled this mitzvah of destroying the wayward city it’s as if they fulfilled the whole Torah.
Chazal teach that one who does avodah zarah is as if he went against the whole Torah, and here, destroying the wayward city is like fulfilling the whole Torah. How is destroying it like fulfilling the whole Torah?
The Gemara teaches that there are three simanim of Am Yisrael: they do kindness, they have embarrassment, and they have mercy. Destroying the wayward city’s inhabitants and animals is a very difficult act for those with mercy. To fulfill this mitzvah meant going against their nature and was very difficult to do. When we are kind and help others, we do mitzvos and feel good about it, and it is a relatively smooth action using our traits that make up our souls. However, acting with cruelty was only done because Hashem asked us to do so; it was not easy. Because the action is not self-motivated, and breaking one’s character is extremely difficult, it is like fulfilling the whole Torah.
The famous words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov come to mind: “If you believe you can destroy, believe you can repair.” Applied to our context, we can say, “If you believe you can destroy a wayward city and act against your nature, you should realize you can repair.” As the Ohr HaChaim taught, Hashem gave the middah of mercy (back) to them so they can build.
We should realize our actions are strong and have an effect on us and the whole world. Let us build up the world, and with the help of Hashem see the Beis HaMikdash rebuilt as well!
Rabbi Mordechai Young is available as a remedial rebbe and tutor. He can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.