>Shabbat Re-eh 5771

The Torah doesn’t much like idolatry. And it’s even more concerned with idolatry’s PR machine.

Chapter 13 of Deuteronomy gives instructions for dealing with those who might instigate the larger community to turn away from God and cast their lots with false gods. Three different scenarios are presented. In the first, a prophet advocates for idol worship. In the second, one’s relatives or close friends are doing the instigating. The third case is that of ‘Ir Hanidahat, the reported subversion of an entire town, the inhabitants of which have apparently taken the bit and are engaged in idolatrous behavior.

It is no surprise that the Torah prescribes harsh treatment of the inciters in each case–execution, in fact. But the third case, that of ‘Ir Hanidahat, is presented in unique language. It begins (Deuteronomy 13:13): “If you hear it said…” The first two instances involve witnesses to the instigation; here, it’s a matter of rumor. Also, the Torah’s follow-up instructions are presented in a repetitive manner: “You shall investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly” (13:15). These unusual phrases prompted the Rabbis of the Midrash to a fascinating interpretation:

“‘If you hear it said'”–but not if someone went digging for information. Could it then be that the case should be dismissed? So Scripture says, ‘You shall investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly’–investigate the words of Torah, inquire of the witnesses, and interrogate the students.” (Sifrei Devarim 92)

I find this midrashic law fascinating. It first suggests that we are not to go looking for idolatrous dirt without an initial cause for suspicion. Then it tells us that once we hear something, we must turn into bulldog investigators. If idolatry is such a serious crime, why are we forbidden from making proactive inquiries? And if we’re not supposed to go looking for this behavior, why must we be so vigilant once we get wind of it from elsewhere?

This raises a couple of larger questions. What is it about idolatry that the Torah is violently bothered by it? And what can this midrash teach us about the nature of investigation today, by journalists, law enforcement, or paparazzi? On Shabbat morning, we’ll investigate these questions.