These two sections of the Torah are normally read separately. The question that intrigues me is whether it is possible to find a common theme that unites them. Is the fact that they come together this year just a phenomenon of the calendar? We require several combinations of sedrot in order to squeeze the readings of the Torah into the number of available weekends in the Jewish year.
On the one hand, in both sedrot there are a wide range of laws, and there are common themes. In both there are crucial ethical laws relating to sexual, social, and interpersonal behavior. On the other hand, both contain references to non-Jewish pagan practices as the negative touchstone by which we measure what not to do.
What exactly is wrong with paganism? Medieval Jewish authorities were divided. Maimonides, in his Yad Hachazaka, sees the problem as one of intellectual error. The pagan misunderstands the way to appreciate the Divine. Early man saw the agents of nature and life, the heavenly bodies, as being the vehicle for Divine intervention and so they worshipped them instead. They knew full well that the symbols were of no intrinsic value. As depicted in the story we were told of Abraham’s father, the idol maker, they were not fooled, really believing that the images had powers of their own. They were no different than modern Hindus who know that Kali or Krishna or Vishnu or Ganesh are just ideas, symbols of different aspects of life. The error is simply in failing to appreciate the purity of the monotheistic direct line to the Source.
Alternatively, in his Bet HaBechira, Meiri suggests that it is nothing to do with the concept of the Divine. Rather, it is whether one has a “moral code” or not. Paganism accepts no objective moral constraints. It leads to pure licentiousness and abandon. Monotheism imposes obligations and limitations as an expression of the Divine, rather than permitting self-indulgence so long as one performs set rituals. Otherwise, “Where the heart wishes to go, the mind is sure to follow.”