Onwards towards the Promised Land trudge Moses and the people, and the closer the land gets, the louder and longer are the anti assimilation speeches. ‘Beware’, the old leader warns the eager tribes – ‘do not be seduced by the ways of the land, by native gods, local flavors and paths off the highway’. The fear of assimilation, then and now, is not unique to the Jewish people, who, like other nations, strive to celebrate their uniqueness in a salad bar reality of options. But when is this fear of the other way too much? In this week’s Torah episode, Re’eh, the fear of seduction by other religious models is extreme enough to remind us, uncomfortably, of historical witch-hunts and the more recent McCarthy hearings. Instructed to prevent idolatrous propaganda the people are ordered by Moses to suspect and report anyone and everyone – including closest family members and friends.
One such list of potential suspects caught our eye, especially one item on the list – an expression that denotes deep intimacy and is translated differently in various contexts, offering us a glimpse into the definition of friendship – and its potential perils.
The Book of Words, Chapter 13, verse 7 lists those who should be reported and killed for heresy – ‘If your brother, your own mother’s son, or you son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entice you in secret, saying “come, let us worship other gods who neither you nor your fathers have experienced” (NJPS translation)
Forget for the moment how upsetting this list is and what betrayal of kinship it required here, fundamentalism style. We want to only focus on the expression ‘closest friend’. The Hebrew is more complex – using the word NEFESH – SOUL and the word RE’A – most often translated as ‘friend’, ‘ally’, ‘colleague’ or ‘neighbor’. A footnote in the NJPS Bible adds – ‘Literally – your friend who is as yourself.’
Similarly, Richard Friedman translates ‘Your friend who is as your own self’ and Everett Fox chooses ‘Your neighbor who is (one) like your (very) own self.’
The emphasis here is on the mirror image – focusing on the word ‘soul’ – suggesting that your friends’ soul is as your own, and the shared is greater than the separate. Even then, especially then, we are warned of being influenced or led astray by other. Whether it is your neighbor, best friend, partner or lover – the emphasis here (more than on the list of flesh and blood relatives) is on the soul linkage between two people, and the challenge of distancing self from the influence of cherished other.
Reading this biblical text verbatim in 2007 is ethically unacceptable. And so, we choose to read this narrative as a psychological allegory – an invitation to deeply examine our private path of spiritual progress, where, guided by our own soul, even the closest people and even our ‘soul mate’ may be kindly asked to leave, if only for a while. Sometimes – you simply have to close your eyes and go inside, into our private innermost soul; into the state of living we call ‘the promised land’.