“Neither Right nor Left”
Dr. David Brent

In this parsha, Moshe admonishes the Jewish people not to deviate either to the right or to the left. But what does this really mean? A second question: why so many references to fire? And does an answer to the latter question inform the former?

The theme of the parsha is about continuity—how the experience at Sinai and the Exodus from Egypt will be transmitted to those who did not experience it directly. The methodology for transmission is to feel as if each person himself actually participated in this experience. The present tense address of Devarim is meant to stimulate this viewpoint, as is the Shema, which is self-talk to pledge allegiance to G-d and His Torah with one’s full being, in every aspect of activity.

How, though, is the experience and teaching of Moshe to be preserved with authenticity? Isn’t that the challenge—not to deviate to the right or to the left, and to neither add nor substract, the complementary warning?

According to the Maharal, left represents material bounty, and multiplication and right represents spiritual wisdom. Presumably, although he is not explicit about this, this is derived from what one sees when facing the Aron. To the left, the Shulchan, and to the north, the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naftali—with abundance of oil and cattle. To the right, the Menorah, the light of Torah. Rav Hirsch, z”l, notes that “north” represents the physical, and “south” the spiritual, and that the process of sacrifices is to take that which is material and transform it into something spiritual.

In this context, not to deviate to the right or the left means to recognize that one cannot exist without the other. There is no lit Menorah without oil, there is no sacrifice without cattle, and there is no Torah without flour. Similarly, there is no purpose to oil without Menorah, no point to accumulating cattle without a Mizbeach, and no point to pursuing material success without Torah.

To deviate to either the right or the left is to cripple our ability to transmit the Torah faithfully to our children. We can see this in the first and last mitzvoth in the Torah: first, be fruitful and multiply. Last, each person is to write his own Sefer Torah. Thus, the purpose of being fruitful and multiplying is to produce spiritual descendants who will be yoked to Torah. Conversely, of what good is Torah if one doesn’t transmit it? The purpose of Torah is in part to teach it to our children, because this is how it comes alive—not just for our children, but for us as well.

But if each of us is to write our own Sefer Torah, doesn’t that imply putting our own personal stamp on Torah? And if so, doesn’t that mean the potential for alternation? I believe the Torah is telling us to find a balance between right and left, between spiritual and material. The process of achieving the balance, will look different in different generations, and based on the needs of each person. In fact, it will not be possible to teach Torah to your children if you do not recognize their individuality and need for achieving an equilibrium between right and left. This perhaps is why the word l’vavkhah has two
bet’s, not just because it is a balance between the yetzer hara and yetzer tov, but also because each person needs to find a balance between right and left that helps keep him or her on a true Torah path. Shennantam is translated as “taught,” but it means literally to sharpen—I would suggest to “shape” and to “focus.” One will do so differently depending on the needs of the child and the abilities of the teacher.

What we are able to bring from the “right” will differ greatly—and the Torah accounts for that in the different levels of sacrifices in terms of expense, all of which have the same spiritual meaning to Hashem. With regard to spiritual wisdom, we know this is multilayered and evolving thing—that is apprehended only in partnership with another person—each of whom puts their own individual stamp on the Torah that they learn together.

So how does one keep the transmission going? I believe this is where the fire comes in. G-d, and Moshe as commanded by G-d is emphasizing the fire at Chorev as such a memorable event that it should be “burned” into our consciousness, and that is something we must transmit. We are forged as a people in fire, we sacrifice using fire, and we need to channel our passion, our fire towards our spiritual quest. It cannot be a rational, dispassionate search but must be filled with passion and connected to a sense of emotion. It should be a fire of love, as we say in the Shema, and we should inspire our children with a fiery love for Torah.

Fire, though can also burn, can lead to passionate and imbalance, sexual immorality, and idolatry. Thus, fire has to be channeled; it must be in the center, at the Mizbeach, neither right nor left.

David Brent, MD. is Professor of Psychiatry at Western Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, Pittsburgh, PA