Getting Used to Sinning | Parshas Nitzavim
Devarim, 29:15-16: “For you have known how you lived in the Land of Egypt and how you traversed the nations whose countries you have passed through. You have seen their abominations and their detestable idols (es shikutzeihem v’es giluleihem) of wood and stone, of silver and gold that were with them.”
The Torah warns the people not to be swayed by the various types of Avodah Zarah that they have encountered in their lives. The Brisker Rav zt”l points out a seeming contradiction in the verses. The verse first refers to the idols of the nation in extremely derogatory terms – ‘es shikutzeihem v’es giluleihem’ – abominations and detestable idols. However, It then continues to describe them in terms of the raw materials that the idols are made of – stone and wood, and then silver and gold. Describing idols as being made of stone or wood is far less demeaning than calling them abominations and detestable. And silver and gold even sounds quite attractive. Are the idols sheketz and galal or silver and gold?
The Brisker Rav explains that this verse is teaching an important lesson about human nature. When a person first sees something disgusting, his immediate and natural reaction is one of revulsion. Yet, human tendency is that after a person sees it for a while and gets used to it, it does not seem as disgusting anymore. It is then perceived in quite neutral terms, such as wood and stone. Ultimately, if a person continues to see it and becomes even more accustomed to it, that which the person originally considered revolting and abominable will be considered like silver and gold.
This idea was also expressed by Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l. Chazal say that if a person sins and then sins a second time, it is ‘naaseh k’heter’ which means it becomes in his eyes as if it is permitted. This is because of this idea that a person can very easily become accustomed to certain actions that are initially viewed as being terrible. Moreover, when a person continually commits sins that he knows to be wrong, he generally finds a need to rationalize his actions, and therefore convinces himself in a warped way that what he did was somehow justified. Rav Salanter took this idea even further: He notes that the Gemara only addresses what happens after a person commits the same sin twice, but what takes place when he sins a third time? Rav Salanter answered that it becomes in hie eyes like a Mitzva! His continuous sinning makes him so immune to the true negative nature of his actions that he finds the need to at least subconsciously convince himself that he is doing the right thing. This fits nicely with the Brisker Rav’s observation that the idol worshipper first views idols as the relatively neutral wood and stone, but then comes to see them as valuable silver and gold.
It is important to note that this trait of becoming accustomed to anything is sometimes necessary to survive. One example of this is how people endured terrible suffering and somehow survived. Rav Yissachar Frand shlit’a makes this point with regard to Holocaust survivors: “We can become accustomed to anything. If we could not get accustomed to anything, we would not be able to survive. Sometimes, we see people who went through the concentration camps, where the conditions were unspeakable. How did they do it? The answer is that to some extent, they got used to it. That ability can be very useful.”
However, with regard to our general behavior and Mitzva observance in particular, this trait can be very destructive. Rav Frand argues that this trait is being referred to by a Gemara. The Gemara states that the way of the yetser hara is that it initially advises to do one small transgression, then a slightly worse sin, until eventually it advises the person to worship idols! The Gemara is telling us that there is a slippery slope whereby at each step, a person rationalizes that which had previously been unthinkable until that becomes ‘normal’ and then the person sinks a stage lower and so on, with dire consequences.
Rav Frand continues that one area where this has caused great damage is in our sensitivity to immodest sights and behavior: In his words:
If a person had been away from this country for ten years and returned today and listened just to the radio — to family-oriented programming — the person would be startled at the language used and the type of topics being discussed. One merely has to pick up a copy of the daily New York Times to be shocked by things that would have considered obscene 10 years ago. What happened? We become spiritually deadened by what we see on billboards, by what we see as advertisements on buses or subways, and by what we hear on radio stations. It is mind-boggling!
Ten years ago, this was “shikutzeihem v’giluleihem”. It was disgusting! Then it became “etz v’even”. We became accustomed to it. Now it is even like “kesef v’zahav asher imahem”. We already expect it and look forward to hearing and reading it.
This phenomenon has been particularly relevant during the corona crisis. For example, for several months, many people did not have the opportunity to pray with a minyan. At the beginning it may have felt very strange to pray alone, but based on the ideas discussed here, after some time it may have become more ‘acceptable’ in people’s eyes, to the extent that even when minyanim became permitted again, a person may have developed a more lax attitude, having become immune to the downsides of praying alone.
In order to counteract this, a person must make an extra effort to overcome this natural tendency to become used to situations, through reminding oneself of his values and acting accordingly. May we all merit to not be victims of the tendency to become immune to negative behavior.
- Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen