Do not follow the practices of the land of Egypt, where you used to live, or follow the practices of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. You must not follow their customs. … You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord. …
[Vayikra (Leviticus) 18:3-5]
Do not defile yourselves by any of these (practices), for the nations I am driving out before you have defiled themselves by all these things. The Land has become defiled, so I am punishing it for its sin, and the Land has vomited out its inhabitants. But you are to keep My statutes and ordinances. You must not commit any of these abominations – not the native or the foreigner who lives among you. For the men who were in the Land prior to you committed all these abominations; and the Land has become defiled. If you defile the Land, it will vomit you out as it has vomited out the nations that were before you.
[Vaiykra (Leviticus) 18: 24-28]
In a previous Dvar Torah, we discussed the fact that Eretz Yisrael is unlike other lands, in having the ability to vomit out despicable things, as our pesukim (verses) state. We must explain why the Torah stresses sexual prohibitions as something especially repugnant to the Land. There are other serious sins, which are no doubt despicable as well.
Apparently, the reason the Land is “upset” especially by sexual sins is that such sins indicate serious issues of morality and warped perceptions, and they are not merely serious Torah prohibitions. Eretz Yisrael cannot tolerate the moral lapse involved in sexual sins and therefore vomits out such sinners. In our continuation, we will specify the moral lapses involved.
Lack of Faithfulness
When we analyze sexual prohibitions, we can divide them into two categories:
First, prohibitions which arise from family relationships between the man and woman, such as father – daughter, a man and his aunt, a man and his wife’s daughter.
Second, prohibitions arising from the fact that the woman is not the man’s wife, but the wife of another.
We shall begin with the latter, the prohibition of a married woman.
Sexual relations with another man’s wife express a variety of negative traits – lust, failure to be faithful and lack of commitment.
The marital covenant creates a deep bond between husband and wife. A man or woman straying and “grazes in another field,” having illicit relations, constitutes treachery against the bond between husband and wife.
Why do people do this? After all, people are not inherently evil. Generally, there are two reasons, but likely the two are truly one:
First, the evil inclination (yetzer hara) seduces people and a lustful person is unable to resist the inclination;
Second, A person experiences difficulties at home and rather than dealing with them, he finds escape through illicit sexual activity.
In truth, the common denominator of the two is lack of commitment. When a person is committed to something or someone, even if the inclination pushes him in another direction, he will remain faithful; however, one who is not committed can easily be seduced to stray.
The True Bond
The bond between Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) and God is often compared to the bond between husband and wife, for example in Shir HaShirim (the Song of Songs) and in numerous prophecies. Beyond that, we read at the beginning of the parasha, that the Kohain Gadol entered the Kodesh HaKodashim (Holy of Holies) only one day per year, on Yom Kippur. Within the Kodesh HaKodashim, the holiest place in the world, Kohain Gadol, the holiest of men, on the holiest of days, saw the cherubim who were atop the Aron HaEidut (Ark of Covenant), and Chazal (Our Sages) teach that the cherubim were male and female figures clinging one to the other, as an expression of the fact that Am Yisrael is beloved to God as the love of a male and female [Gemara Yoma 54a].
When the Romans destroyed the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), they removed the cherubim and were unable to understand why, within their holiest place, the Jews had male and female figures clinging to each other. The Gemara [ibid. 54b] connects this to the posuk in Eicha [1:8]: “כל מכבדיה הזילוה כי ראו ערותה” (“All who honored her debase her because they have seen her nakedness”). The Romans, in their superficial and incorrect perception saw the cherubim as symbolizing lust and nothing more. However, in truth, the cherubim represent the deep bond between a man and woman, a bond which is based upon mutual commitment and trust.
When Am Yisrael Does God’s Will
Chazal teach that when Am Yisrael does God’s will, the cherubim cling to each other, but when Am Yisrael does not, the cherubim turn their faces away from each other [Gemara Bava Batra 99a]. This teaching can be understood to mean that the bond between a couple is not based upon convenience and utility rather than upon commitment; when it suits one’s needs, he/she faces his/her mate, and when it does not suit needs, one turns his back to his/her mate. This seemingly contradicts what we have presented.
However, when we analyze the Talmudic story, we see that this is not so. The Gemara related that the Romans removed the cherubim at the time of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and the Jews’ exile, which transpired at a time when Am Yisrael’s sins reached the point where God decided to destroy His Temple and exile His Nation from His Land. Clearly, this is the time that Am Yisrael did not fulfill God’s will, and therefore the cherubim’s faces were turned away from each other. How, then, is it possible that the Romans removed the cherubim when they faced each other? This, apparently, is in direct contradiction to Chazals’ teaching in Bava Batra.
Our question was raised by a number of rabbinic authorities (Rishonim, including Ri MiGash, Ramban, Rashba and Ritva and Aḥaronim), who provided a variety of answers. Parashat Derachim answers thus: God always loves Am Yisrael and will never abandon the nation. Even when God is angry with Am Yisrael, His Shechina is still manifest within us. There are nations which thought that if Am Yisrael angers God, He will abrogate His covenant with them, as a couple which divorces. Since God wanted to demonstrate to the world that this is not so, He showed His love for Am Yisrael specifically at the time He was most angry with them, hence the cherubim faced each other when the Romans removed them from the Beit HaMikdash. The cherubim turning their faces away from each other does not truly create distance between them; it does not, Heaven forbid, symbolize God abandoning us or us abandoning Him, but merely reflects the fact that there are ups and downs in a relationship. Just as with a couple, there are better times and more difficult times, yet they continue to love each other; so, it is with the bond between Am Yisrael and God.
Based upon the above, one who sins with a married woman demonstrates that he does not believe in the deep covenant between husband and wife, he does not consider it binding. Disrespecting the marital covenant will lead to disrespecting the covenant between God and Am Yisrael, and this is something the Land cannot tolerate. One who disregards true bonds, who does not understand the concept of mutual commitment and trust, is not worthy of remaining in Eretz Yisrael.
In summary, we saw that the sexual prohibitions are not only serious sins but are caused by faulty values and false perceptions. A person who commits sexual offenses denigrates the connection between mates and the essence of family life.
Eretz Yisrael does not wait for such a person to reject her; the Land recognizes that person’s perverted values and vomits him out.
May it be God’s will that the Nation of Israel always preserve pure and faithful family life, and in that merit, we will be privileged to continue to live in our Land.