Parashas Kedoshim

In this week’s parashah, the Torah commands (Vayikra 19:4): “Do not turn to the idols (אל תפנו אל האלילים).” The Gemara in Shabbos 149a derives from this verse a prohibition against looking at idolatrous images. The Gemara then raises the question of how exactly the prohibition is derived from the verse, and presents the answer of R. Chanin – the verse is to be interpreted as saying: “Do not turn to what you conceive in your own hearts.” Rashi explains that this interpretation builds on the similarity between the word אליל and the word חלל, which in the present context refers to the chambers of the heart. Yet the teaching still seems very puzzling. The Maggid sets out to explain the Gemara’s message.
The Maggid bases his explanation on an analysis of the exact meaning of the verb פנה. His starting point is another Torah verse involving this verb, which again is interpreted in the Gemara in a puzzling way. In the Torah’s account of how Miriam made to Aharon a comment criticizing Moshe, and was punished with tzaraas, the Torah says (Bamidbar 12:20): “Aharon turned (ויפן) to Miriam, and – behold – she was afflicted with tzaraas like snow.” The Gemara remarks (Shabbos 97a): “He turned away (i.e., was healed) from his own tzaraas.” The Maggid contrasts two Hebrew verbs that signify turning (i.e., changing direction), פנה and נטה. The verb נטה, the Maggid says, refers to turning toward, whereas the verb פנה signifies turning away. The Maggid presents a number of examples of these usages.
For נטה, the Maggid presents the following examples: Bereishis 38:1 (describing Yehudah’s turning toward Hirah the Adulamite), Daniel 9:18 (a plea to Hashem to incline His ear toward the Jewish People’s prayers), and Tehillim 18:10 (“He bent down the heavens and descended”). For פנה, one example is Shemos 10:06: “He [Moshe] turned and left Pharaoh’s presence”. Another example is Vayikra 26:9: “I will turn My attention toward you – I will make you fruitful and increase you.” Although on the surface this statement appears to describe a turning toward, Rashi explains that Hashem is speaking of His turning away from all His other affairs to pay us reward. The Torah uses an abbreviated phrasing, and Rashi fills in the missing piece. We can now easily understand the Gemara about Aharon: Because the Torah uses the verb פנה rather than נטה, we see that the Torah is referring to some type of turning away.
We find the verb פנה used similarly in other verses. One instance is Devarim 16:7, “And you may turn back in the morning and go to your tent,” which speaks of returning home after offering the korban Pesach. The Torah is hinting that we should have such a strong love for the Beis HaMikdash that we have to pull ourselves away to go home. Another instance is Devarim 31:20: “But they will eat, be sated, and grow fat, and will turn to the gods of others.” Here Moshe is saying that if we indulge in worldly pleasures and thereby turn away from Torah and mitzvos, we ultimately will come to worship other gods. In this vein, the Torah warns us (Devarim 11:16): “Beware, lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray (וסרתם) and worship other gods.” We should adopt the approach to life that David HaMelech followed (Tehillim 16:8): “I set Hashem before me always.”
We now turn to our verse. The Torah commands: “Do not turn to the idols.” R. Chanin interprets this command as a charge as telling us not to turn to what we conceive in our own hearts. Again, the Torah uses an abbreviated phrasing, and here R. Chanin fills in the missing piece. The Torah is telling us to be very careful not to turn our attention away from the sublimity of closeness to Hashem, just as a person who is watching an object must be very careful not to turn his attention away from it. For if a person turns his attention away from Hashem, he ultimately will come to worship other gods. Accordingly, the Sages forbade us from looking at idolatrous images, even out of mere curiosity, lest we turn our attention away from what we are supposed to focus on.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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