Parshat Nitzavim: Secrets Are For God

This week’s Parsha marks the culmination of the covenant between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael, before they enter the land of Israel. The covenant focuses on the communal responsibility to prevent idol worship, and ends with the following pasuk:

הנסתרת לה’ א-להינו והנגלת לנו ולבנינו עד עולם לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת

Secrets are for hashem our G-d, and the revealed is for us and our children forever to perform all the commandments of the Torah.

Communal or Personal Transgressions?

Most commentators believe that this verse teaches us that we are required to condemn and prosecute public transgressions, but will not be held responsible for the sins of those who commit their transgressions in secret – G-d will punish them. Nonetheless, there are three alternate interpretations, each of which provides a compelling view of sin to consider as we approach Rosh Hashana and Yom Kipur.

In a Breiyta quoted in masechet Sanhedrin (43b), Rabbi Yehuda argues that Hashem punishes Bnei Yisrael even for individual sins committed in secret. The classic example of communal divine punishment for sins of the individual even while they are unaware of the sin is found in Sefer Yehoshua. Achan looted Jericho, even though G-d commanded Bnei Yisrael to consecrate all the spoils of Yericho. G-d punished Bnei Yisrael as a whole for Achan’s sins, causing them to be routed in battle against the weak city of Aye, even though Bnei Yisrael did not know that Achan had sinned. Only once the peple of Israel found out Achan and punished him did they succeed in conquering the city of Aye. Rabbi Yehuda’s radical view of communal responsibility confers on each individual a challenging and important task. Everyone is required to make sure that the entire community is committed to worshiping G-d. If we fail to do so, if even one person sins, we are all liable. It is clear that this challenge is focused much earlier than the point of sin, it requires s all to take part in deep education of ourselves and our peers to ensure that no one falters. It raises communal responsibilities to the greatest heights imaginable.

Eye looking through holeIn stark contrast with the previous two interpretations, Ramban argues that “hanistarot” (the sins committed in secret) and “haniglot” (the revealed sins) refer to the individual, not the community. People are responsible for the sins they commit knowingly, which the Torah refers to as Niglot. G-d does not hold one guilty for the nistarot, or the sins one commits without knowing that they are sins. In Ramban’s model sinning is dependent on the thoughts behind the action. If a person violates Shabbat unwittingly, although Shabbat was violated he as a person has not rebelled against God since he is unaware of the violation. In order to incur the curses enumerated in the covenant, one must intentionally rebel against G-d. Ramban illuminates that the Mitzvot have a dual purpose, the goal achieved by keeping the laws, and the fact that role they play in the constant relationship between man and God. The covenant is based on the latter and not the former.

The viduy of Yom Kippur provides a third interpretation. During the viduy, we ask a fundamental question: Why must we confess our sins if G-d already knows all:

You know never revealed secrets and secrets of every individual.
You search all the innermost chambers and examine the kidneys and heart
There is nothing hidden from you and there is nothing secret from before your eyes.

The viduy continues to use our Pasuk to state that God will take upon himself to forgive all sins that we are not aware of, as the Pasuk says that “Secrets are for hashem our G-d”. The revealed sins, those that we are aware of, “are for us and are children”. We must acknowledge and confess them in order to be forgiven because it is important for us to recognize our misdeeds and strive to do better in the future. Unlike all the previous interpretations that viewed the Pasuk in terms of punishment the viduy reinterprets the pasuk to be focused on forgiveness. God will forgive the hidden ones, it is up to us to cleanse ourselves from the revealed ones.

Shana Tova!

Rav Yossef Slotnik
Rav Yossef Slotnik, a member of Beit Hillel, heads the overseas program at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. Born in the United States and raised in Israel, he studied for many years at Yeshivat Har Etzion. His focus of study is on revealing the hidden messages of Talmudic sugyot. In addition to teaching in the yeshiva, Rav Slotnik participates in interfaith dialogue and teaches Tanach at secular kibbutzim.

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