Friday, April 25, 2014

the unique punishment for worship of Molech

The parsha of Molech worship (20:1-8) contains a unique warning:

  וְאִם הַעְלֵם יַעְלִימוּ עַם הָאָרֶץ אֶת-עֵינֵיהֶם מִן-הָאִישׁ הַהוּא בְּתִתּוֹ מִזַּרְעוֹ לַמֹּלֶךְ לְבִלְתִּי הָמִית אֹתוֹ:
וְשַׂמְתִּי אֲנִי אֶת-פָּנַי בָּאִישׁ הַהוּא וּבְמִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתוֹ וְאֵת כָּל-הַזֹּנִים אַחֲרָיו לִזְנוֹת אַחֲרֵי הַמֹּלֶךְ מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּם:

The Torah threatens that if the “am ha’aretz” ignore the crime of the Molech worshipper, not only will G-d mete out the punishment to the Molech worshipper, but He will also mete out punishment to the entire family. 
Why should the family of the Molech worshipper bear responsibility for his crimes or the crime of the “am ha’aretz” who refuse to do justice?

Rashi (20:5) already raises the question, and quotes R’ Shimon who explains that if one member of a family is a cheat, they are all cheaters, as they cover for his crimes.  According to Rashi, it sounds like an inevitable conclusion.  Ibn Ezra softens it somewhat.  He reads the lesson directly into the pesukim by equating the “am ha’aretz” referred to in pasuk 4 with the family of the Molech worshipper threatened with punishment in pasuk 5.  *If* (the choice is their’s to make) the family ignores the crimes of one of their own, they become culpable as well.     

(Parenthetically, Ibn Ezra learns that b’peshuto the parsha refers to one who marries a non-Jew and has a child who is an idolator, an interpretation Chazal explicitly reject (Megillah 25).)

The Seforno preserves the distinction between “am ha’aretz” and “mishpachto” -- one refers to the public at large, one is family – yet draws a similar lesson.  The public’s choice to ignore the Molech worshipper’s wrongdoing is likely due to his family protecting him or protesting against the punishment.  Therefore, they share in his guilt.

At first glance equating “am ha’aretz” with “mishpachto” makes for a weaker reading – why use different words for the same group of people?  Was Ibn Ezra perhaps uncomfortable with Seforno’s assertion that public indifference is automatically an indication of family pressure to cover up the crime?  Or maybe the shift in terminology here helps shed light on the crime.  We use the term “am ha’aretz” to connote ignorance (granted that meforshim here explain it differently).  The family of the Molech worshipper may argue that as far as they are concerned, they prefer to remain in a state of willful ignorance and turn the other way rather than confront the crimes of one of their own.  Why should they get involved in the affairs even of someone close?   The Torah, however, emphasizes in its threat of punishment that they are “mishpachto,” and as family it behooves them, as ones who would be privy to the crime, not to ignore it.

According to any of these approaches, the question that begs asking is why make this point here?  If the lesson is that ignoring a crime or covering up wrongdoing means sharing in the blame, then why does the Torah not warn, for example, that the family of a mechalel Shabbos will be punished, or that the family of a thief will be punished?  Why bring it up only in the context of Molech?

The Rambam (Moreh III:37, also see Abarbanel, R’ Bachyei) addresses this point.  The Molech cult attracted followers by threatening that harm will befall the entire family of the person who does not turn over his children.  It’s one thing to refuse to be involved in idolatry when the risk is only to oneself; it’s quite another when there is a threat or perceived risk to one’s children and family.  The only way to counter this type of threat is to offer an equally compelling counter-incentive.  The Torah therefore warns that not only will the person who worships Molech be punished, but his family, the very ones he wants to protect by getting involved in Molech worship, will come to harm as well. 

It still seems that something is missing.  In addition to the threat of punishment to the family of the Molech worshipper, Ramban points out that phrases like “...eiten as panay...,” “...v’samti es panay...,” come up only here.  No where else do we find kareis couched in such terms, almost as if the sin is a personal offence to G-d kavyachol and therefore he will personally attend to the punishment.  There is a severity to the punishment for Molech worship, perhaps due to the fact that it involves children, that goes above and beyond even other avodah zarah. 

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