Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Walk Article-Nitzavim



Rabbi David Walk


            Dots tend to bother me.  Whether its polka dots or dotted lines I prefer solid colors or lines.  Maybe it's because I'm getting older and I'm beginning to see dots or floaters before my eyes.  There's actually a term for the fear of dots, called trypophobia.  But especially troubling is when I see dots in a Biblical text, because then it becomes necessary to explain them.  Usually the rabbis explain the presence of these dots as a warning to interpret the text bellow them differently than you might have originally thought.  There are many examples of this phenomena but I'm concerned with the appearance in this week's Torah reading.

            There are eleven dots above the following verse:  The hidden things belong to the Lord, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah (Deuteronomy 29:28).  Before we start with the dots it seems that the simple meaning of the verse is that God will take care of and punish any transgressions which the human courts can't handle because there isn't sufficient evidence or the perpetrators are so well hidden from detection.  The verse informs us that there are no 'perfect crimes', because God is never baffled by our smoke screens.   Maimonides explained that the hidden things in the verse are the meanings of mitzvoth, and really only God understands them.  We should try to glean as much understanding as we can but remain aware that there is much we can't fathom.  He says that this is important because sometimes we think that we understand the purpose of a mitzvah and then believe that we can abstain from its physical fulfillment because we already got the point.  Some people say that even King Solomon fell into that trap because of his great erudition.  Those are both important ideas, but neither begins to deal with the dots. 

            A famous approach to the dots is stated by Rashi:   There is a dot placed over each letter of the words lanu ulvaneinu (for us and our children) here, to teach us homiletically that even for open sins which were not brought to judgment, God did not punish the whole community until Israel crossed the Jordan. For then, they accepted upon themselves the oath at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, and thereby becoming responsible for Torah duties (Sanhedrin 43b).  This is part of the principle in Jewish law that we never punish until fair warning has been given.  This works out neatly because there are eleven dots over the verse and there are eleven curses declared by the Cohanim at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval to which the twelve tribes respond, 'Amen!'

            Okay, so we said that one of the normative explanations of the verse is that hidden or unsolvable crimes will be punished by God in place of the proper earthly authorities.  This means that we believe that ultimately every crime is punished.  In last week's parsha we read that we are especially concerned for hidden cases of idolatry.  There is another point of view.  One might assume that the hidden sins are the mistaken transgressions (Hebrew:  shogeg) as opposed to sins committed on purpose (meizid).  In this scenario we're saying that those crimes committed by mistake, which are free from punishment in our courts of law will still be punished by God at some point and in some way. 

            The Ramban (1194-1270) takes this last point one step further.  He says that crimes committed even without our awareness will still be punished by God.  To support his contention he quotes the following verse:  Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults (Psalms 19:13).  King David is begging God to save him from punishments even for sins he never realized that he had committed, which means that he was theoretically culpable even for those acts.  On a certain level these are the most dangerous sins of all.  If I'm committing heinous deeds without any awareness of my behavior then my normal conduct has become unacceptable.  As a human I am required to remain aware of my acts at all time.  When I'm sinning without notice, I'm in a bad spiritual place.

            Normally there are two kinds of shogeg, sins of error.  Either I don't know the law which prohibits that act or I didn't realize that I was in the circumstance which made it prohibited.  For example either I didn't know that cooking was prohibited on Shabbat or I didn't realize that it was Shabbat today.  Well, the Ramban introduces a third possibility.  I'm not aware of what I'm doing.  I didn't know that I was cooking, or, even worse, I wasn't aware that I was talking lashon hara or was hurting that person's feelings.  These are situations that we should grow out of as we mature.  We should at all times be aware of our surroundings and the ramifications of our deeds.

            Maimonides counts the first step of the Teshuva (repentance) process as abandoning the negative act.  But that assumes that we recognized that we've done something wrong.  Without that self awareness, we can never move forward in the Teshuva course.  I'm not so concerned over whether God is meting out punishments or not.  On the other hand, I'm very concerned about people (me especially) successfully navigating an effective Teshuva experience. 

            As we move closer to Rosh Hashanah, our Yom Hadin, it behooves us to become ever more aware of what we do and the ramifications of those actions.  That's the only way that we take full advantage of this special zman ratzon, period of God's openness to our overtures.  Of course we depend on God's good graces and abundant compassion, but our attitude must begin with our own efforts to reform and improve.  Remember our Sages have told us, 'Repentance…is the best protection from Divine retribution (Pirkei Avot 4:13).'  It's sort of like hitting a baseball.  You might have a lucky swing and get a hit, but it's best to keep your eye on the ball. Please, pay attention to your actions.