This week’s Torah portion has a cavalcade of mitzvot – 55 in total. Some of them don’t get too much press such as the mitzvot associated with Ir HaNidachat – The Wayward City.
The Wayward City is defined as one whereby the majority of its inhabitants have undertaken a belief and practice in Idol Worship. We all know that Idol Worship is a big no-no in Judaism and the Torah spells out the punishment for such a place: Its citizens must be killed and all contents within the city – animals and utensils – must be utterly destroyed without a trace. No one can benefit from any articles of such a place (no, “Hey, I think I’ll help myself to that Lexus before they burn the place down”) and it can never be rebuilt again. In essence, wipe it out and wipe it clean.
Judaism has always frowned upon Idol Worship and this is perhaps the strongest expression of our reaction to it. There is one catch however. According to tradition as expressed in the Talmud, this is an entirely fictitious scenario. Historically there has never been an Ir HaNidachat and the Talmud boldly claims that not only has there never been one, but the factors to create such a place make it impossible to have an Ir HaNidachat at all, ever.
So then what’s it doing in our Torah you may wonder? Good question. The Talmud asks that and says that we should study it and receive the reward. Apparently there are lessons to be learnt and while the Ir HaNidachat may not have a legal function, it does have an educational one.
Perhaps an insight into this whole affair can be gleaned from three exceptions that would disqualify and preclude a locale from becoming a Wayward City. One exception is that any city in Israel that borders a neighboring nation is exempt from being declared a Wayward City. Secondly, the Talmud explains that a “large city” cannot be destroyed – a large city being a major city of any particular tribe where most of the inhabitants of that tribe reside therein. And thirdly, Jerusalem cannot ever be deemed a Wayward City no matter how many of its inhabitants were to serve Idols.
I would suggest that there is a common thread to the above exemptions and it teaches us a meaningful lesson on how we should view Jewish communities involved in questionable practices that are not consistent with Judaism. Bear in mind that there are few things more abhorrent in our tradition than Idol Worship. It is the second of the Ten Commandments and one must go so far as to give up one’s life before serving another god. This is demanded of us from only two other of the entire body of 613 mitzvot. And yet, despite the heinousness of the crime of Idol Worship, in the above three instances, when most of a community is involved in it, the city is left alone. A little strange, no? A lot strange in fact.
Perhaps the Torah is telling us that there are times when, despite a grave wrong being committed by a large group, we are still not allowed to destroy and write off that community. We need to consider whether, in the overall scheme of things, it does greater harm to the entire Jewish people by destroying such a community – literally or figuratively.
It is terrible if a border city becomes an Ir HaNidachat, but it’s a greater jeopardy to the safety of the entire nation if such a city were to no longer be. If we wiped out that city, it would create a security breach. A crucial line of defense would be lost and the entire nation would be threatened.
It is awful if the majority of a tribe becomes a Wayward City. But an even greater tragedy would happen were we to lose most of any one tribe from the Jewish people. There would be an irreplaceable hole in our nation if the bulk of any tribe would be lost.
And finally, it is certainly beyond our comprehension if Jerusalem were to become so caught up in Idol Worship to be deemed an Ir HaNidachat. But if it were, it would be far worse if we were to not have Jerusalem at all. When all is said and done it is our national and spiritual capital, and always has been. So even if Jerusalem totally lost its way, it is still better for there to be a Jerusalem.
We don’t have Wayward Cities today, nor did we ever. But the lessons from it are relevant in our time more than ever. Before you go dismissing an entire group of Jews because you do not believe or agree with their expression of Judaism or their politics or their customs or their dress, ask yourself what would our people look and be like without that group? What if we Ir HaNidachated them and had them removed from our people? Would you prefer that? What would Am Yisrael look like without them?
Let’s not be more zealous than God. If He didn’t want us to rid ourselves of a particular group despite its heinous behavior and values, surely we can show similar patience and forbearance to those involved in less egregious acts or beliefs than Idol Worship.
We must always strive to see the bigger picture and show a little patience for the greater good of our people. Although there may be groups of Jews whose lifestyle and beliefs rub us the wrong way, we need to look beyond that and still see the overall contribution they are having to our people as a whole. And who knows, maybe with enough time, patience, teaching, love and acceptance, those who are indeed wayward may very well find their way back.
Though my eyes could see
I still was a blind man
Though my mind could think
I still was a mad man
I hear the voices when I’m dreaming
I can hear them say
Carry on my Wayward Son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more
(Robby Steinhardt a”h)