There’s a word which comes up twice in this parsha and nowhere else in the Chumash, the 5 Books of Moses. (It does appear elsewhere in Nach) – belial.
The first time we encounter it is in describing a “subverted city”. One which has been corrupted by idolatry. The idea is that a few bad people – אֲנָשִׁ֤ים בְּנֵֽי־בְלִיַּ֙עַל֙ – have led everyone astray. (Deut. 13:14).
The Torah goes on to suggest that this city is beyond recovery and must be absolutely annihilated with all its inhabitants. This is pretty disturbing stuff so it’s important to remember that we are rabbinic and not Biblical Jews. The rabbis of the Talmud read this material metaphorically and not literally. They see this is a discussion about corruption and the need to stamp it out and are quite sure that this is a hypothetical discussion which never translated into real events.
The next time we meet it is in a discussion about the sabbatical year. Since debts are written off every sabbatical year, a person is warned פֶּן־יִהְיֶ֣ה דָבָר֩ עִם־לְבָבְךָ֨ בְלִיַּ֜עַל – not to harbour the nasty thought of avoiding making a loan in the run-up to the sabbatical year lest they never get their money back. (Deut.15:9)
The Talmud equates these two occurrences of the term belial concluding (Bava Batra 10:10)
“Anyone who turns their eyes away from one seeking charity is considered as one who worships idols.”
The Gemara puts the two texts together because of this shared word.
“Just as there (Deut. 13:14) the base men sin with idolatry, so too here (Deut. 15:9), the base thought is treated like idolatry.”
But what does belial actually mean? Perhaps, say scholars, it connects to the Babylonian goddess Belili. In later non-canonical writings the word becomes a proper noun. In a work called Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Belial is a kind of demon, (like Satan) who represents the dark side of human nature.
The traditional commentators say the same thing but in a more naturalistic way. Belial is not outside of us but inside of us.
They read belial punningly as “beli ol” – without a yoke. When we say the Shema we are submitting to ol malchut shamayim the yoke of the authority of Heaven, and ol mitzvot the yoke of performing the mitzvot. (Mishna Brachot 2:2). Being yoke-less is living without God or Torah.
Medieval commentator – Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340) reads Belial as “bli al” relates to the verb to ascend, as in aliyah. So belial is a lack spiritual elevation.
Similarly, a related interpretation by Shadal – David Luzzatto born in Italy in 1800 elaborates on the same idea “bli yo’il”- which means “lacking in purpose” or “useless”.
All of these ideas help explain the Torah’s obsession with idolatry, or rather with abolishing idolatry. Idolatry in the rabbinic imagination, means getting distracted by stuff, evanescent, irrelevant stuff.
And so back to the Shema. We are supposed to care about transcendent meaning. That is the One Truth which is God. But the way we show our submission to this Higher Authority is by performing mitzvot and acts of kindness, in fact by simply by being good to our fellow humans. So the ultimate idolatry is being cruel to other people.
My takeaway is this: Belial refers to people who worship false gods and lead others astray. And the most concrete manifestation of this type of person is someone who thinks their money is more important than other people’s well being. That’s the whole story.