“Secret Transgressions”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, we once again encounter the Tochacha, G-d’s reproval of the Jewish people. The Tochacha appears twice in the Torah: first, in parashat Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-46, and then again in this week’s parasha, Kee Tavo, Deuteronomy 27:11-28:69.

In parashat Kee Tavo, the Tochacha opens with a series of blessings and curses. Upon entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were to gather on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal to reaffirm the acceptance of the Torah. As six tribes stood on one mountain, and six tribes on the other, the Ark, the priests, the elders, and the elders of the Levites stood in the valley between the mountains. From their location in the valley, the Levites were to recite the blessings and curses, as the tribes on the mountains responded, “Amen.” Only after the people reaffirmed their commitment to the Torah through this pledge would their entry into the land of Israel be validated.

The nature of the 12 curses is rather intriguing. Each one of the admonitions begins with the words “arur“–-cursed be, and ends with the word, “Amen,” a confirmation of the pronouncement by the people.

The first admonition, Deuteronomy 27:15, reads as follows: “Arur ha’eesh ah’sher yah’ah’seh feh’sel ooh’mah’say’chah, toh’ah’vaht Hashem, mah’ah’say y’day chah’rahsh, v’sahm bah’sah’ter, v’ah’noo chol hah’ahm, v’ahm’roo, ‘Amen.’” Cursed be the man who makes a graven or molten image, an abomination of G-d, a craftsman’s handiwork, and places it in secret [for worship]. And the entire people shall speak up and say, “Amen.”

This opening warning is followed by eleven other admonitions: 2) to those who degrade their parents; 3) to those who move boundaries illegally in order to deceive their neighbors; 4) to those who cause the blind to go astray; 5) to those who pervert the judgment of converts, orphans or widows; 6) to those who lie with their father’s wife [stepmother]; 7) to those who commit bestiality; 8) to those who commit incest with their sisters or half-sisters; 9) to those who lie with their mother-in-law; 10) to those who strike their fellows stealthfully; 11) to those who accept bribes to convict innocent people of capital crimes; 12) to those who fail to uphold the words of this Torah and to perform them.

Both the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel b. Meir, French exegete, c.1085-1174, grandson of Rashi) and the Ohr HaChaim (commentary on the Torah by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R’ Chaim Ibn Attar, 1696-1743) find a common theme running through the twelve admonitions: each one of the transgressions may be done secretly and stealthily. The perpetrator may think that no one is watching and that no one knows, but, of course, G-d knows. These 12 warnings constitute, in effect, a plea for internal integrity on the part of the people, establishing a very high moral standard.

While the Torah’s plea for internal integrity has been encountered previously, parashat Kee Tavo raises the bar significantly higher. In Leviticus 19, we find an extensive series of laws that end with either the phrase, “Ah’nee Hashem” or “Ah’nee Hashem Eh’loh’kay’chem”–-I am the L-rd, or I am the L-rd, your G-d. In Leviticus 19:10, the Torah adjures farmers and field workers not to pick up the undeveloped twigs of the vineyard or the fallen fruits of the vineyard. They are to be left for the poor and the proselyte, I am the L-rd your G-d.

Our rabbis explain that harvesters who accidentally drop one or two stalks, may not return to collect them. They are to be left for the poor and the proselyte. However, if three stalks drop, harvesters may retrieve all three because the owners would incur great financial losses. Of course, once the harvesters drop two stalks, they might purposely drop a third which would enable them to retrieve the first two. By concluding the verse with the statement, “I am the L-rd Your G-d,” the Torah, in effect, pleads for integrity, admonishing the people that G-d clearly knows whether the third sheaf was dropped purposely or not. Hopefully, this warning will deter workers from behaving deceptively.

In a truly G-d-fearing nation, this exalted level of behavior is expected of the people.

And so it is with the 12 admonitions that are recorded in parashat Kee Tavo.

Idolatry may be worshiped privately and in a way that no one knows that forbidden worship is taking place. Similarly, one may degrade one’s parents privately or move the border boundary at a time when no one is looking. Only the perpetrator knows for sure if the blind person is purposely led astray, or whether the judge has perverted the judgment of the proselyte, orphan, and widow. Sexual acts, such as incest with one’s stepmother, bestiality, and incest with one’s sister or half-sister or mother-in-law are surely not acts that are performed before witnesses. Stealing stealthily from a neighbor is either done by secretly entering and exiting, or by “cooking the books” or forging checks, all secretive acts. Judges and witnesses obviously do not take bribes publicly. And, of course, much of ritual Judaism is performed in a private manner. Therefore, no one knows what kind of Shabbat is celebrated by others, or whether others pray with tallit and tefillin, or light Shabbat candles. Much of the nature of ritual observance is private.

How does a Jew become not only an “observant” Jew, but a Jew who observes with integrity? A Jew who observes with integrity does so not only when it is convenient, but also when it is inconvenient, not only when it is pleasurable, but even when it is painful. A Jew with integrity practices not only when subject to great public praise, but also when subject to public calumny, embarrassment and even loss of income and livelihood.

The Torah forcefully declares that the land of Israel may not be occupied by a people who act in a contradictory manner when it comes to public and private morality. No nation can flourish when morality is practiced only because its citizens fear that they may be caught performing a wrongful act.

Of course, the Torah’s high standards stand in stark contrast with much of the philosophy of contemporary morality and its so-called “relative morals” and tolerance of “victimless crimes.”

In my youth, one of the popular advertisements was the rather brilliant marketing campaign for Clairol haircoloring. The ad’s tagline, “Only your hairdresser knows for sure,” implied that the hair color was so real-looking, that no one would be able to detect that the haircoloring actually came from a bottle.

In a Jewish society where G-d is genuinely revered, there is no room for cutting corners, taking shortcuts, or acting deceptively. A Jew of integrity is a sanctified Jew, who brings sanctity to the world.

The month of Elul is certainly a month where all must strive to become one with our Creator and one with our own hearts. There is no room for bifurcation. While practicing this exalted morality is a formidable challenge, it is the type of behavior that will hasten the arrival of the Messiah. Undoubtedly, the reward will be great.

May you be blessed.