Sunday, February 8, 2009

Yisro, Shemos 20:3. Worship No Other Gods in My Presence. לא יהיה לך אלהים אחרים על פני

Hashem warns us that we must not worship other gods "in My presence." Obviously, since Hashem is present everywhere, this means everywhere. But this is really self evident. What is gained from saying "ahl ponoy"?

I read an interesting story by (the recently deceased) John Updike in the New Yorker of January ‘08 called "Outage." Strange, unsettled weather causes a power outage in a rural village and the surrounding area in Maine. A man, standing in line in a store while the clerk laboriously adds numbers longhand, has a conversation with the woman behind him. Both their spouses are out of town. The woman seems slightly anxious and distracted, and she tells him that she’s nervous about being alone in her isolated house in the weird half-light and amid the creaking trees. Out of simple kindness, he accompanies her to her home, and things, predictably, deteriorate and develop their own momentum. Just at the moment that it becomes clear to the characters that they are going to be unfaithful to their spouses, the lights suddenly come on, the burglar alarm starts chirping, the dishwasher starts churning, and they are jolted back into reality. As if awoken from a daze, he realizes that he has no business being there, and he apologetically leaves, and the woman, too, is relieved to see him go.

To me, the story is a powerful evocation of a truth (besides the fact that Yichud is, even for decent people, a really bad idea): when we find ourselves in a changed environment, sometimes we feel detached from the rules and morals we live by; we’re in kind of a dream-state where everything is different, or we think of our everyday life as a distant, half-forgotten dream. Indeed, Updike, in an running undertone, refers to the pale and ghostly appearance, the seeming intangibility, that the day lends to the things and people in the story.

My mother shlita told me that many refugees from Eastern Europe who gathered in Russia during the war, frummeh people who had lived blameless, innocent lives, just dropped away all their morals and upbringing, and the moral decay in arayos and gneiva in a great number of the people was terrible to see. Outside of the cocoon of their past, irretrievably torn from their community, they became entirely different people, brutish and amoral.

To some extent, people feel this when they go on vacation, or even on a business trip. The great avoda is to so deeply inculcate and incorporate our moral beliefs that change in circumstance does not result in anomie, the feeling that our life-mores don't apply, so that when we find ourselves in a different matzav, our regular life doesn’t seem like an easily forgotten dream. Wherever you find yourself, you are always "Ahl Ponoi." Everyone is brave on the firing range, as they learn how to shoot a rifle and crawl under barbed wire. When people actually face the enemy, they learn that their putative bravado may turn out to be a thin facade. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that you've succeeded in this hard avodah. But in fact, it's a never-ending task; the only way to really know if you've succeeded is through trial by fire, rachmana litzlan.

(By the way, even without involving the Ribono shel Olam, if you think you can get away with stuff on vacation, you're wrong. First of all, bad behavior sticks. As a certain famous Mashgi'ach once said to me, "Good comes and goes, but bad is forever." You can't be a sheigitz away from home and then come back and put on the mask of tzidkus; once damage is done, the roshem of the aveira stays there, deep inside, even if you don't see it in your safe, predictable daily life. Second: here's a classic example of why it doesn't work: my wife and I took one of our kids to a low-class redneck type vacation area- a sprawling bedlam of tattoo parlors, go-cart tracks, and "Ripley Believe it or not" type attractions, the Wisconsin Dells. We picked what was basically a trailer park type of motel on the outskirts of a trailer-park town, so that "we shouldn't run into anyone who knows us." We would put on baseball caps, wear T-Shirts, and 'go native.' It wasn't exactly a "yilbash shechorim" matzav, but it was the same basic idea. As soon as we settled in, who parked next to us in the lot? The founder of our local Pirchei, who had planned exactly the same thing.  UPDATE: More recently, we went on a two day trip to Louisville, Kentucky.  Who lives in Louisville?  Well, there's a nice orthodox minyan there, and who did I meet at the minyan?  My very frum neighbor, my car mechanic.)


  1. This is such a great interpretation- and a heavy lesson. Sometimes, vacations feel so free- I see how important it is to maintain the same standards away as at home. Thanks!!

  2. whats with the picture?

  3. I decided to put it up over Shabbos to see what kind of reaction I get.

    Send me yours, and maybe I'll put it up, too.

  4. picture too big [ but dignified ]
    forces me to scroll down to see title of new posts

  5. Shavua tov to you.

    1. If the Ben Ish Chai can do it, why can't I?
    2. I thought that putting the picture in would shame the shnorrers who use the divrei torah into sending me a note.
    3. I tried to make it smaller, but can't figure out how to do that. And-
    4. I deleted General Ripper.

  6. Putting aside the fact that I could have inserted a picture of Jesse Jackson Junior, let's assume that it is, indeed, me. And your point is?

  7. Actually, the picture is an illustration by Mrs. Rumpole of the first topic in mishpatim. Vehamivin haivin.

  8. Shein ein mohl heivanti.

    Other than the issur to be memalei schok piv be'olam hazeh, your comment makes blogging worth it.