Contributed by: R. Ezra Mizrahi
"You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from Hashem to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.
"When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.’ This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. Hashem will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man. All the curses written in this book will fall upon him, and Hashem will blot out his name from under heaven." (Devarim 29: 17-20)
As we read this passage, which describes an individual whose heart is tilting towards worshipping idols, we must ask how could the punishment be so harsh – "Hashem will never be willing to forgive him"? Especially during these days of Selihot, we are steadfast in our belief that Hashem is truly forgiving, and would always forgive a person who sinned. What is different about our case here, of an individual whose "heart turns away from Hashem?"
We can turn to Rashi who explains that an individual who states that they will "persist in going my own way" is essentially stating that what his heart perceives as being right, is the correct path for him. Such a person is ignoring the path that Hashem set out for them to achieve. The Keli Yaqar explains the severity of one who has thoughts of Avodah Zara (idol worshipping) over the actual act of worshiping idols. For the very thought of worshipping idols is more severe because the core aspect of the sin takes place in the heart. As opposed to a person who simply bows to an idol, who physically makes an action, which is punishable by death, but still will be ultimately forgiven, unlike this individual whose heart began to lean towards Avodah Zara.
And, halacha lemaaseh, misvot require kavana. Which means, ideally, one should have the correct intention in one's heart when performing misvot. Judaism is not a ritualistic cult where as long as you are doing the misvah you are OK. Hashem as if desires our hearts. And indeed, later in the parasha we read:
"No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it."
As we approach the High Holidays, it is important to remind ourselves that we must work on our hearts, as the Ibn Ezra explains later in the parasha, "the heart is the most important. We merited having the very best services for the High Holidays in the world. To truly feel the holidays is therefore all the more easier for us. We just need to be aware of the importance of being true in our hearts to our religion.