The Sins we Commit Openly or in our Hearts | Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech

There are parts of the Torah that catch our eye just because of the way they are inscribed on the scroll itself. Key letters are adorned with ‘crowns’, sometimes extra dots appear above words and in some cases letters are enlarged. In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, there are unusual dots over the words lanu ul’vaneinu (“for us and our children”) and over the first ayin in ad-olam (“forever”) in verse 28 of Chapter 29.

The Torah tells us: “Concealed acts concern the Eternal our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children forever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching” (Deuteronomy 29:28). Jewish tradition has different explanations for these marks and what they mean for us in terms of sin and Divine punishment. In the Talmud Bavli (Sanhedrin 43b) the rabbis interpret these marks within the context of discerning which sins – secret or open – will be counted against Israel. Rabbi Judah is of the opinion that we will only be punished for sins committed in secret, after crossing the Jordan River. Rabbi Nehemiah, on the other hand, holds that God will not punish Israel for secret sins and only after we are actually in the Promised Land will Israel be held accountable for public sins.

Debate continued among medieval philosophers who were particularly concerned with drawing a distinction between transgressions that fall under the purview of human justice and those for which judgment and punishment remain in God’s hands. Public flouting of the law has a detrimental effect on the community and therefore must be dealt with decisively and justly in order to preserve the integrity of communal culture, norms and expectations about crime and justice, but what about “private sins”? Do they have any impact on the community? According to Chasidic thinker, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izbitza, “when a man transgresses in secret, and it is not known to anyone else, then his sin is not pertinent to the whole community of Israel, but it is rather of the secret things that belong to Hashem our God, (and He decides how to deal with that individual)” (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izbitza, A Commentary on the Torah, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 2001, pp. 384–85). The implication, here, is that a private sinner might escape human justice but he/she will ultimately face Divine justice. Indeed this is a common teaching in both Jewish and Christian traditions – we may get away with sinning in secret, but it’s only our fellows who do not know that we have sinned. God always knows and it is God who will seek retribution.

But, is it really true that if someone transgresses in secret that that person’s sin is “not pertinent to the whole community?” Our actions are guided by our beliefs, our beliefs shape who we are as individuals. In my role as a college instructor, I am constantly faced with the challenge of students who attempt to cheat either through plagiarism or other means. We are trying to build a college culture that encourages success without the sin of academic dishonesty. In our research, we have discovered study after study that indicates that academic dishonesty in its various forms actually leads to long term damage to both professional and academic habits. Jason M. Stephens, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut who studies cheating among secondary school students, notes “…that the effect of cheating is, the more we engage in dishonest acts, the more we develop these cognitive distortions – ways in which we neutralize the act and almost forget how much we are doing it.” (Sparks, Sarah D. “Studies Shed Light on How Cheating Impedes Learning.” Education Week 30.26 (2011):1. ERIC. Web. 2 July 2013).

Our actions shape who we are as individuals and since communities are built by individuals who collectively shape the culture, norms and expectations for the community, how can the quality or character of individuals not be pertinent to the quality and character of the community?

Our High Holy Days liturgy recognizes this fact. There are places in the service for private confessions of shortcomings, but the public confession service, the Vidui is an interesting blend of private and public. The “Ashamnu” is an alphabetical listing of sins to which we confess publicly. The “Al Cheit” liturgy is also recited communally, but it lists sins that we commit both in open and in secret; sins we commit through actions and sins we commit in our hearts. While the specific secret sins remain concealed, known only to the individual transgressors and God, acknowledged in the company of our fellows we are hopefully aware that those actions impact others even thought they are secret. We often hear of people who are accused of leading a “double-life” – their public persona is entirely at odds with who they are privately. Jewish tradition does not approve of such a dichotomy. The teachings of Torah are the cornerstone of a way of life that aims for justice, holiness, and compassion in all things – private and public. “Concealed acts concern the Eternal our God” because they signal a schism in a complete way of life, a division between what is perceived by others and what truly is. Overt acts may be the only acts to which we and our children may be able to apply this eternal teaching, publicly, but a fully Jewish life calls upon us to apply these teachings in public and in private.


About the Author:

Rabbi Y.L. bat Joseph is the executive director of the Sol Mark Centre for Jewish Excellence in the Greater Vancouver Region of British Columbia, Canada. She is also an instructor of Philosophy at Alexander College in Vancouver.


The above was previously published as #182 in our Torah from Around the World series.

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