Sinning in Secret

Judgment Day! The time has finally come for the Israelites to meet their fate. In Parshat Re’eh which we read 3 weeks ago, we learned that the Israelites will be blessed at Mount Gerizim and cursed at Mount Eval. They have a choice: either follow the commandments and be blessed or disregard them and be cursed. Now we find out the results of the blessings and curses. Six tribes ascend Mount Gerizim, and the other six ascend Mount Eval. Reuven, Gad Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naftali all shout out twelve times “Cursed is the one who does…” and each time they finish the people reply “Amen!” What do these sins that deserve curses have in common and why are they mentioned?

On this one Rashbam, a 12th century French commentator who often disagrees with his grandfather Rashi, hits the nail on the head. First he points out that the 12 sins correspond to the 12 tribes. The tribes are cognizant that each one individually must act in the proper manner lest they risk getting cursed. Rashbam continues that the common denominator of each sin is that they are done in secret, when no one is looking. The first sin illustrates this: “cursed is the one who puts up a statue or a molten image.” A statue is generally displayed in public, especially if its representative of a foreign god. However, the verse goes on to assert that the person put the statue up in secret, so that only he could see it and worship it. He is cursed for doing so.

The other sins, one who reviles their father and mother, who crosses the boundary of their neighbor, who misleads the blind, who distorts justice for a convert, orphan or widow, etc. are also items often done in secret. One would not (G-d forbid) disparage his/her parent (or any other family member for that matter) to their face but might do so in private conversation. Similarly, most examples of theft occur in secret, where the thief does not want others to find out about his action. Taking from one’s neighbor’s property when he is out of town or not watching is far more likely than when she is focused on you. If one is blind, as Rashi says “blind concerning a particular matter,” it is easy to mislead him/her, giving bad advice or leading him/her in the wrong direction. One would not do that when the other is knowledgeable about the matter. Finally, we get to those who pervert justice for the most vulnerable elements of our society, those who cannot defend themselves. Since they do not know better, they are likely to accept the outcome and put themselves at a financial disadvantage or hurt their well-being.

Why single out these types of sins? Because they constitute the majority of wrongdoings done. If you look at crime statistics for major cities, you’ll see that burglaries and thefts are between 50 and 70% of all crimes, much greater in number than homicides and assaults. Most crime done in our country is nonviolent and is designed to occur in secret, when no one is looking. How much more so would something like giving bad advice to one who is “blind” in a matter occur, something which is not necessarily a crime but which is a sin nonetheless in our tradition. This is further demonstrated by one of the main reasons given for doing wrong: “Because I didn’t believe I would get caught.”

We know from our tradition that there is never a time you can sin and no one is watching: rather God knows everything that we do. As Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi states in Pirkei Avot Chapter 2 Mishnah 1: “Know what is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears and that all your deeds are recorded in the book.” God is aware of all that we do and there will be consequences for our actions. We are also generally aware of when we do wrong because of our conscience. Often we sin and we don’t getting caught, yet we still feel a pang in our heart because we know we have done wrong.

This in my mind is the purpose of the High Holy Days: to reflect again on where we have fallen short, to genuinely repent and to strive to do differently in the coming year. It is to recognize that we never get away with any sin or wrongdoing without bearing the consequences in some form. We will not always (or even most of the time) “get caught” but both we and God will know that we have made a mistake, and rather than holding it in we need to express our remorse in our prayers and in our changed behavior. My prayer for each of us is that we strive to have our public appearance reflect who we truly are and how we truly act (tocheinu k’boreinu). L’shana Tova Tikateivu v’tehateimu-May each of us be inscribed and renewed for a happy, healthy and sweet new year. Shabbat Shalom.

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