The Hidden Things are Known to God

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHOT NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

The Hidden Things are Known to God

 

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

"The hidden things are [known] to the Lord our God, and the revealed are to us and to our children forever, to perform all the words of this Torah" (Devarim 29:28). Rashi explains this verse as teaching us that God may punish the community for the "revealed" (public) sins of the individual, but He does not punish the community for his "hidden" (private) sins. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 43b) focuses on the dots that are written in the Torah scroll above the words "to us and to our children" as well as "forever," commenting that this expresses the change that will occur in the Divine system of punishment once the nation enters the land of Israel. The Gemara records a debate between the Tannaim concerning this change. R. Yehuda maintains that until the entry into the land, the community was punished only for revealed sins, whereas after entering the land they would be punished even for hidden sins. R. Nechemia, in contrast, explains that until the entry into the land the community was not punished for the sins of the individual at all, while after reaching Eretz Yisrael they were punished for the revealed sins of the individual but not for his hidden sins. Either way, we may ask why the rules change upon reaching the land.

Rashi (29:28, based on Sota 37b) teaches: "Once they accepted upon themselves the vow on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival, they became guarantors for one another." This explanation would seem to imply that the new communal responsibility for the individual is based on the fact that they accepted this upon themselves. There is no special significance attached here to the entry into the land; rather, on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival Bnei Yisrael accepted upon themselves responsibility for one another, and this is what obligates them thereafter.

The Maharal disagrees with Rashi, explaining that the new responsibility was based not on acceptance but rather on the fact of entry into the land - an event that effected a metaphysical change in the nature of Bnei Yisrael. It made them into a single, organic unit; each individual could be considered a limb of a single great body, such that the behavior of each individual would have an effect on the whole. This echoes the Gemara (Horayot 3a; see also Rambam Hilkhot Shegagot 13:2) that teaches that the Jews in Eretz Yisrael "are called a congregation," while Jews outside the land of Israel "are not called a congregation."

R. Nechemia hence maintains that the community is responsible for the acts of the individual only if there was some possibility of their expressing objection. Otherwise, they cannot be held guilty. For this reason, they are guarantors only for revealed sins.

R. Yehuda goes much farther, insisting that communal responsibility applies even to hidden sins; the question of who is guilty is irrelevant, for when one part of the body sins, the other parts are affected. Some rishonim (e.g. Ra'avan and Rabbeinu Tam) were reluctant to accept such an interpretation, understanding rather that R. Yehuda must be referring to the type of hidden sins to which objection could nevertheless be expressed.

How is such mutual responsibility expressed? Rashi comments, "To destroy the evil from among you: If the evildoers are not punished [by the court], then the community will be punished [by the hand of Heaven]." The Rashbam likewise teaches, "To carry out punishment according to the testimony of witnesses." This would seem to refer to the justice that is to be carried out by the courts, punishing sinners and evildoers.

But our communal responsibility includes much more than this. The phrase in our verse, "to perform all the words of this Torah," corresponds to another verse found in parashat Ki Tavo: "Cursed is he who does not fulfill the words of this Torah, to perform them" (27:26). The Ramban (27:26) quotes the Yerushalmi (Sota 7:4):

R. Asi taught in the name of R. Tanchum bar Chiya: Someone who learned and taught and observed and performed [Torah] and had the capability of maintaining it but did not maintain - he is included in the category of those who are cursed.

Thus, our responsibility includes not only doing away with evil, but also the positive task of promoting fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot. A person is responsible not only for his own Torah study and mitzva observance, but also for those of his fellow. Therefore the Yerushalmi criticizes even someone who studied Torah himself and also taught others, if he had the ability to do more to strengthen Torah among the nation but did not do so. A person who is capable of raising the spiritual state of the nation and fails to do so has failed so significantly that he is even considered as falling in the category of those who are "cursed!"

Further on, the Yerushalmi (Sota 7:5) teaches: "R. Levi said: In Yavneh the strap [for administering lashes] was set aside. A heavenly voice declared, You have no business with hidden matters." R. Levi, like R. Yehuda, maintains that in Eretz Yisrael the nation is punished even for hidden sins. However, he believes that when the Sanhedrin moved to Yavneh, there was no longer punishment for hidden sins. This would seem to correspond to the explanation of the Maharal above. Communal responsibility exists only when Am Yisrael form a single organic unit. When they moved to Yavneh, this unity was no longer present. The nation had changed from a single body into a collection of individuals, and hence no one could be responsible for the spiritual state of anyone else.

This issue assumes huge significance in our times. With the return of the nation to Eretz Yisrael, we are returning to a state of unity, a state of being an organic whole. And so the responsibility likewise is once again placed upon us. The Yerushalmi makes mention of King Yoshiahu, who mourned for the fact that he could have strengthened Torah among the nation but did not. Today we have no king with that power, and political activity is also ineffective in this area. Therefore the responsibility for strengthening Torah falls upon each of us as individuals - and especially among those who engage in intensive Torah study.

In our generation, surrounded by a culture that often emphasizes the opposite of all that Torah stands for, we must strengthen observance of the Torah and do everything we can in order to elevate the spiritual level of the nation. As we have seen, this is not the task of special, holy individuals or the agenda of a perfected, ideal world. It is the obligation placed upon us by the Torah, and if we fail to fulfill it then we are worthy of be included among those who are "cursed" and we will have to answer for it. In our days, we should consider ourselves as being addressed by a heavenly voice, informing us: "You must concern yourselves with hidden matters," namely, with hidden sins, and all the more so with revealed sins.

(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Nitzavim 5754 [1994].)

 

 


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