This week’s torah portion, Nitzavim, is also the Yom Kippur torah portion, AND it is possibly the shortest torah portion we have. Two opportunities in 2 weeks to study it and think about its ramifications in our lives.
It’s best known, I think, for its rousing admonition to choose life. To follow the path of a life well lived. Since that’s pretty close to what I believe I am speaking about on Yom Kippur morning, I looked at some of the lesser known verses to see what I could find for us to study tonight…
I have also been devouring information about Israel, Iran, the nuclear threat, and Israel’s internal struggle about what to do with it. I’ve been reading across the political spectrum, from the Times of Israel, to Haaretz, to the New York Times, to Fareed Zakaria…
Then I read an unusual take on Nitzavim, from Yehuda Kurtzer, the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, which appeared in the Huffington Post… He asked the questions:
- How obvious is the work of doing good?
- How often is “the right thing to do” completely clear?
The Israel and Iran crisis is one example of this, because we don’t know what the consequences will be for any number of options, how many casualties, how wide a war, how much added hatred. A nuclear Iran is terrifying, especially for Israel, which Iran has vowed to drive into the sea. A middle east war that involves nuclear weapons is terrifying. The Saudis pushing for nuclear capability, or terrorist cells getting their hands on them are also terrifying. There is NO good option here. The solutions seem deeply hidden, while the fears all over are palpable.
And to some extent, this week’s torah portion tells us – those hidden things, those unknowable things, they are God’s province and we should not step forward.
So let’s look at the verse. It comes in the context of God again threatening us with what happens if we stray off the path – follow false gods, especially. Moses is talking about collective punishment, which would come our way if we allow evil we can see to persist.
Deut. 29:28. The hidden things belong to Adonai, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah.
Rashi: The hidden things belong to the Lord, our God: … surely no one can know the secret thoughts of their fellow [that we could somehow prevent this collective punishment!” In answer to this, God says:] “I will not punish you for the hidden things!” [I.e.,] because “[The hidden things] belong to Adonai, our God,” and God will exact punishment upon that particular individual [who sins in secret]. However, “the revealed things apply to us and to our children” [that is, we are responsible for detecting the sins committed openly in our community, and] to eradicate any evil among us. And if we do not execute judgment upon these [open transgressions, over which we do have control,], then the whole community will be punished [because they would be remiss in their responsibility].
Let’s stop here. God is reminding us that just because the rest of us can’t see it, God knows… Just because we get away with running a red light, doesn’t mean we didn’t do something wrong. And it does not mean we might not suffer consequences for it later on…
Just because no one saw us do something terribly wrong, doesn’t mean we didn’t do wrong. And doesn’t mean on some level we might not pay a price later on.
But what are the hidden things and what are the revealed things? The pshat, or contextual level, of this verse is that, as Rashi (the medieval French commentator) says, we cannot know into the hearts of others. For Rashi, it is about judgment and justice, about making sure we are all on the right path, that the judicial system is based on evidence and fairness. If someone strays, but there is no evidence—then, this verse is telling us, somehow, somewhere, they will be punished… but we should leave them alone.
But for the straying we DO see, we need to step up. The case that comes most strongly to mind is the Penn State situation, where people knew what Sandusky was doing with those boys and turned a mostly blind eye. For years.
It took too long for him to come to justice, as the witnesses in the football program did not want to ruin the football dynasty. This experience hopefully reminded us again that we do NOT stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. We shall surely rebuke our neighbor, we already know that as well. (We’ll be chanting that verse Yom Kippur afternoon.) It also reminds us of the teaching from Joseph Albo in the 15th Century, that the three things that hinder teshuvah are denial, excusing oneself, and the love of money and glory.
But this verse, in its context is also about collective punishment. That those of us who DO stand idly by—we are as responsible as the perpetrator. How many of us think that Joe Paterno, who let Sandusky “get away with it” by keeping silent, also deserved punishment?
I recently read an essay by one of my teachers that argues that “good moral judgment is not” being judgmental. That there is a difference between “good moral judgment” and “excessive condemnation.”
Maimonides (our 12th Century commentator) noted that “[i]f you see a friend sinning or pursuing an unworthy life, it is a mitzvah to try to restore that person to the right path. Let your friend know that wrong actions are self-inflicted hurts, but speak softly and gently, making it clear that you speak only because of your concern for your friend’s well-being.” To some extent, it is all in how we communicate with each other. Can we offer the rebuke with kindness, and the desire only to help them? If we offer it because their behavior is driving us crazy, that’s not good enough, and we’ll probably sound like it. But if we do it because we geniunely want to help them, geniunely care that they do the right thing, then it is our job NOT to stand idly by.
I found an interesting example of this on the NY Times’ Social Q’s column: a young boy was concerned that his teen age sister was dressing somewhat like a slut: tops too tight, skirts too short, and that people were making judgments about his beloved sister. The columnist, Philip Galanes, often gives excellent advice on minding our ps and qs. In this case, he suggested the younger brother tell her first what he loves about her and only then tell her that her dress choices are preventing people from seeing what’s great about her. Exactly the Rambam’s point.
When there is evidence and the truth clear, it is up to us to step up and make things right…
But what if we don’t know what the truth is? What if we don’t know the right course? What if there is moral ambiguity, which there wasn’t at Penn State? What if there is no right answer, only better and worse answers, as is generally the case?
Do we walk away and leave those to God? Do we look at human trafficking and because we can’t see a solution, walk away? Or do we look at the death penalty, and understand the desire for revenge, for thinking that someone may be so evil that they deserve to die? Or do we continue to kill people to show that killing people is wrong? Californians are going to vote on this in November, and come to Tea and Torah or Tequila and Talmud in October and we’ll talk…
But back to moral ambiguity and leaving those hidden things to God… What do you think? Especially in light of the following verses?
Deut. 30:11 Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
According to this, which we will chant on Yom Kippur morning, what we are being asked to do is right there in front of us – in our mouths and our hearts. What we are being asked is not so hard… It’s all in front of us… We may not know what evil or goodness lurks in the hearts of other people, but we do know that we have a responsibility to each other to keep each other on the straight and narrow, to do the right thing, and to do it kindly, so that the other will hear you and maybe make a change.
As the High Holy Days approach rapidly, let us explore where we let things stay hidden and where we try to uncover and help out. As we explore our own needs for reflection and teshuvah, that turning, let’s also pay attention to what we haven’t been able to reveal to ourselves, and whether we can try now.
I wish you all a new year that leads you – and the world – to all that is good, all that is sweet, and all that helps you grow to be the person you want to be.
 R. Mordecai Finley. Five theories you meet in heaven. Jewish Journal. 9/12/12. http://www.jewishjournal.com/high_holy_days/article/5_theories_you_meet_in_heaven. Accessed 9/14/12.
 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dei-ot 6:7