Parshat Re’eh contains several warnings against idolatry, including the law of the Ir Hanidahat, the idolatrous city. The Torah says:
“If you hear it said of one of the towns that the Lord your God is giving you to dwell in that some scoundrels from among you have gone and subverted the inhabitants of their town, saying, ‘Come let us worship other gods’ whom you have not known, you shall investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly. If it is true…put the inhabitants of that town and its cattle to the sword. Doom it and all that is in it to destruction….”
It seems terribly cruel — surely not everyone in the city is guilty of idolatry. And if the adults are guilty, what about the children, what about the animals?
The good news is that the rabbis of the Talmud limited the law’s application only to a town in which a majority of the adult men were individually proved in court by the testimony of two witnesses to have committed idolatry. Rabbi Eliezer states (Sanhendrin 71a) that a city with even a single mezuza could not be judged idolatrous. Moreover, the Talmud asserts, “An Ir Hanidahat never was and never will be, and why was this law written in the Torah? So that we may study it and receive a reward.”
So what are we to learn from this law? Rabbi Shimon said (Sanhedrin 112a), “Why did the Torah ordain that the property of the righteous within the city be destroyed? What caused them to dwell there? Their wealth. Therefore their wealth is destroyed.” Even a righteous person would lose all he owned if he chose to live in an Ir Hanidahat. He should have chosen a city with righteous neighbors rather than living somewhere where he could maximize his wealth.
Obviously, it’s important to earn a living and it’s nice to be able to afford some comforts and luxuries. However, the Torah insists you should not let money control you. A person who chose to live in an idolatrous city in order to pursue wealth was doomed. Some things are more important than money, and one is the people with whom you choose to surround yourself.
We tend to worry about how peer pressure affects teenagers, but it affects adults as well. As the old saying has it, “If you lie down with dogs you will wake up with fleas.”
It’s hard to hold onto your ethics when you work for a company where cheating and back-stabbing are rewarded as long as they help the bottom line.
It’s hard to stand up for traditional morality when celebrities of all types flaunt their promiscuity and infidelity and people say, “Don’t be so judgmental.”
It’s hard to champion civility when the seven words you can’t say on TV have been whittled down to one, when reality shows suggest that decency is out of fashion.
But, people say, everybody does it. Well, no — not everybody does it. That’s the Torah’s point: You can’t escape peer pressure, so be careful how you choose your peers.