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The Three Sins

V'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The major message of Parshat V'etchanan is the idea of One God. The exalted prayer, the Sh'ma is found here. The Sh'ma may be seen as the pinnacle of man's acceptance of One God. The Sh'ma however is not an isolated statement. The idea of one God is expressed in a number of places in Parshat V'etchanan:

To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other beside him. From heaven he made you hear his voice, that he might instruct you; and upon earth he showed you his great fire; and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. (Deut. 4:35-36)

Know therefore this day, and consider it in your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath; there is no other. (Deut. 4:39)

Know therefore that the Lord your God, he is God, the faithful God, which keeps covenant and mercy with those who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations. (Deut. 7:9)

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Deut. 5:6)

The last reference is, of course, to the Ten Commandments which are repeated in Parshat V'etchanan.


* * *



This entire Torah portion is testament of the importance in the belief in one God, but also of the importance of avoiding idolatry.

This law is stated clearly in the Ten Commandments, but the Ten Commandments are not an isolated statement; the polemic against idolatry is reiterated numerous times: see Deuteronomy 4:15-19,23,25,26-28, 6:12,14.

The only other subject which is mentioned in Parshat V'etchanan is the establishment of Cites of Refuge.1

Then Moses set apart three cities on this side of the Jordan toward the rising sun. That the slayer, who killed his neighbor unintentionally, and did not hate him in times past, might flee there; and that by fleeing to one of these cities he might live. Bezer in the wilderness, in the plain country, of the Reubenites; and Ramoth in Gilead, of the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan, of the Manassites. And this is the Torah which Moses set before the people of Israel. (Deut. 4:40-44)

There is also a number of references to a particular place where scandalous behavior took place ? Peor.

So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-Peor. (Deut. 3:29)

Your eyes have seen what the Lord did because of Baal-Peor, to all the men who followed Baal-Peor; the Lord your God has destroyed them from among you. (Deut. 4:3)

On this side of the Jordan, in the valley opposite Beth-Peor... (Deut.4:46)

While Peor was a place where idolatry was practiced, it was also a place where an outrage of a sexual variety was perpetrated.

It would therefore be fair to state that the major topic of this Torah portion is belief in God and avoidance of idolatry, while concern about bloodshed, and sexual licentiousness also make an appearance.


* * *



These three offences could be called the cardinal offences in Judaism and are the only violations which one must avoid on the pain of death.

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehozadak: "By a majority vote, it was resolved in the upper chambers of the house of Nithza in Lydda that in every [other] law of the Torah, if a man is commanded: 'Transgress and suffer not death' he may transgress and not suffer death, excepting idolatry, sexual licentiousness and murder." (Sanhedrin 74a)

Furthermore, these are the three crimes which caused the destruction of the first Temple:

Why was the first Sanctuary destroyed? Because of three [evil] things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed. (Yoma 9b)

In order to understand why these crimes are stressed more than others, we need to analyze some failures from the past and understand the implications for the future.

The first outrage to take place in the history of the world was the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. While technically one could call the sin thievery (they took and ate from something which did not belong to them), the objective of the repast was to become like God. Indeed, this was the seductive description hissed by the serpent:

For God knows that in the day you eat of it, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.(Genesis 3:5)

The very thought that man could become like God is based in idolatry because: 1) in order for man to approximate God, he must be guilty of emasculating God, of cutting God down to a human size; 2) to equate man with God, he must have an incredibly inflated perception of himself.

Rav Yehuda also said in Rav's name: "Adam was a heretic for it is written, And the Lord God called unto Adam and said unto him, 'Where art you?' i.e., where has your heart turned?" ... Rabbi Nachman said: "He denied God." (Sanhedrin 38b)

The second sin is in Book of Genesis is the fratricide committed by Cain. The third is the sin that came in the generation of the flood. Here a sexual breakdown is described:

That the sons of the powerful people saw the daughters of men that they were pretty; and they took as wives all those whom they chose. There were Nefilim in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of the powerful people came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same became mighty men of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:3-5)

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. (Genesis 6:11-12)

The Ibn Ezra explains these passages, stating that the violence and corruption were the result of powerful men taking whichever woman they chose.

Therefore, we can state that three primordial sins committed in the early chapters of Genesis were idolatry, bloodshed and sexual misbehavior.


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This cycle is then started again with an attempt to build the Tower of Babel. A tower up to heaven in order to wage war on God is attempted:

And they said, "Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:4)

It is at this juncture that Abraham appears and begins his war on paganism. A new light shines brightly and new hope for the world is forged.

Years later Abraham's descendants leave Egypt and begin their march toward destiny. They make a monumental stop at Sinai where the Revelation transpires. Moses then ascends the mountain, where he will remain for forty days and nights. The people wait below, theoretically in great anticipation awaiting the descent of the Torah with Moses.

But instead, they begin to build the Golden Calf. The tragedy is enormous, for the moment of accepting the Torah could have wiped out the negative stain left by the serpent of old. Instead a new chapter of idolatry is opened. Meanwhile, Moses on his way down the mountain witnesses this great perfidy, and the tablets of God come falling out of his hands.


* * *



The building of the Golden Calf was not simply a question of idolatry. There were other facets to the debacle.

When the idea of the Calf first arose, the people approached Hur, and asked him to oversee the building. Hur refused and was immediately murdered:

Hur arose and rebuked them: "You brainless fools! Have you forgotten the miracles God performed for you?" Whereupon they rose against him and slew him. (Midrash Rabba Sh'mot 41:7)

The Talmud relates Aaron's reaction to this:

He [Aaron] saw Hur lying slain before him and said [to himself]: "If I do not obey them, they will now do unto me as they did unto Hur, and so will be fulfilled [the fear of] the prophet, Shall the Priest and the Prophet be slain in the Sanctuary of God? 2 (Sanhedrin 7a)

Thus we have idolatry, murder and a third element3 -- sexual licentiousness -- as the Torah relates:

And the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry. (Exodus 32:6)

Rashi explains, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, that the "making merry" meant sexual activities.


* * *



The Talmud tells us the significance of this tragedy:

If the first tablets had not been broken the Torah would never have been forgotten in Israel. (Eruvin 54a)

Now we may begin to understand the severity of this sin. Had the Jews not built a Golden Calf the Temple would never had been destroyed. All three sins which caused the destruction of the Temple were represented at the Golden Calf.

The Mishna draws a direct connection between these events:

Five misfortunes befell our fathers on the 17th of Tammuz ... on the 17th of Tammuz the tablets [of the law] were shattered, the daily offering was discontinued, a breach was made in the city, and Apostomos burned the scroll of the law and placed an idol in the temple. (Ta'anith 26b)

The 17th of Tammuz is the beginning of the three weeks mourning which is undertaken in memory of the destruction of the Temple. The negative spiritual power of the day was unleashed when the Jews worshipped the Golden Calf. At that moment the tablets lost their holiness, and the letters written by the hand of God floated back where they had come from ? to heaven. Now all that was left in Moses' hands was a rock devoid of holiness.

Now we understand how years later the walls of the holy city, Jerusalem could be breached on the same day. Once the people's behavior caused the presence of God to be expelled, the city had lost its holiness. Now the city was just stone ? devoid of the Shechina.


* * *



Of the three offences, Judaism sees idolatry as certainly the worst and most destructive. The individual who has no belief in One God may subjectively create his own worldview, justifying all his desires.4

The linchpin of Judaism is belief in God. Therefore, Moses spends the majority of the Torah portion discussing the problem of idolatry and the value of belief. If the Jews are to be able to remain in the land which they are about to enter, they will need to avoid these three offences and work on their belief in God.

Moses repeats the Ten Commandments hoping to instill in the people a deep profound faith in, and awe and fear of God. For if the people retain God within them, the Shechina will never be expelled and exiled.

Today, we stand thousands of years later; we have the advantage of the perspective of history. Today, we grapple with the question how to imbue the rocks with their original holiness, and how to assure that the Shechina returns to the people and land, never to be exiled again.



  1. See the comments of the Nachmanides, who understands the text as stated above, while the Ibn Ezra understands that the establishment of the cities of refuge had already taken place. (return to text)



  2. The Talmud is referring to the verse from Aicha, which describes the destruction of the Temple (Aicha 2:20): "Behold, O Lord, and consider to whom you have done this. Shall the women eat their fruit, their cherished babies? shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord?" (return to text)


  3. The Midrash Rabba (Exodus 41:7) discerns only idolatry. (return to text)



  4. This idea is expressed in a Tosefta (Shavuot 3:6) which asks, "Who is the most dangerous man"? The Tosefta's answer is that the atheist, even if he is a moral man, is most dangerous because there is no basis for his morality. In the eyes of the Tosefta, today's moral atheist may be tomorrow's murderer. (return to text)




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