There are sections of the Torah that call out for our attention just from the way they are written in the sefer Torah, the Torah scroll, itself. The most famous are the enlarged letter bet of the first word of the Torah, B’reishit, “In the beginning,” and the two enlarged letters of the Sh’ma prayer (Deuteronomy 6:14), the ayin in the word sh’ma and the dalet in the word echad,which remind us not to read this important text incorrectly. My favorite marks are those over the word vayishakeihu (Genesis 33:4), leading us to wonder whether Esau kissed Jacob with a whole heart or wished to bite him, when they were finally reunited (see B’reishit Rabbah,78:9).
In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, we also find strange marks in the verse, “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). The marks appear over the words, lanu ul’vaneinu, “for us and our children,” and over the first ayin in the phrase ad olam, “forever.” Our tradition provides different explanations for these dots.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43b, they are understood in relationship to the question: For which sins are the Israelites to be held accountable? Rabbi Judah takes the position that the Israelites are only punished for those sins they commit in secret after they cross the Jordan. Rabbi Nehemiah reads the texts more leniently, concluding that the phrase, “the secrets belong to Adonai forever” means that God will never punish the Israelites for these secret sins, and that the distinction here is that it is only that after they cross the Jordan, that God will hold them accountable for their public sins.
According to Sforno, the relationship of this verse to the question of punishment, and in particular the “terrible Divine retribution mentioned in the preceding verses,” (Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, trans. and ed., Sforno, Commentary on the Torah [Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah Publications, 1997] p. 978) continues among the medieval commentators. They are concerned with drawing a distinction between those sins for which a human court should exact punishment and those for which the punishment remains in God’s hands.
Violations that take place in public are understood to have an impact on the community, different from when a man sins in private. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izbitza says, “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). We can understand that public sins are different, influencing as they do, public culture, norms, and expectations.
Others deal with this text in a very different way. B’midbar Rabbah 3:13 understands the dots to mean that in the future God will reveal the secrets that the text tells us belong to God forever. The dots are like a crossing out or a refutation of the text.
Another interpretation is that the secret things are those mitzvot whose reason is not understood by us; “we do not know why God commanded us to do them. This is what the verse says: ‘The secret things belong to the Lord,’ we should do those ‘secret’ commandments for God’s sake, simply because he so commanded us. ‘And the revealed ones belong to us and to our children,’ this refers to those commandments whose reason is stated openly and can be understood. We are obligated to pass down this explanation to our children so that they can understand it as well,” (The Weekly Midrash Tz’enah Ur’enah: The Classic Anthology of Torah Lore and Midrashic Commentary (Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah Publications,1999), pp. 957–58).
Another Rabbinic tradition sees the dots as a sort of insurance program, a way of covering both your bets: “Why are there dots over all these letters? This is what Ezra said: If Elijah comes and says to me, why did you write this? I shall say to him, I made marks over them. And if he says to me, You wrote it well, I shall take the marks off them,” (Avot D'Rabbi Natan, v. 2, ch. 37).
Modern scribes, both Orthodox and liberal, discuss these special markings. Rabbi Avraham Chaim Bloomenstiel, an Orthodox sofer, sees these markings as opportunities for d’rash (http://www.ctc-torah.org/). Soferet Jen Taylor Friedman, a postdenominational, halachically observant, egalitarian, Jewish ritual scribe and scholar, who is notable for being the first woman ever known to have written a sefer Torah, explains, “rabbinic culture retains the memory of a period during which the Torah was written down not under divine dictation, when significant errors may have crept in. This part of our narrative says that after the return from exile in 538 BCE, Ezra the scribe pulled the fractured Jewish tradition together as best he could, redacting the Torah text, but not completely accurately” (http://hatam-soferet.dreamwidth.org/).
Moving from the marks to the meaning of the verse itself, the discussion of “secret things” represents a challenge to us as modern Jews. Does it imply that not all knowledge is accessible to us? We moderns believe it is just a matter of time before all the mysteries of the universe are solved. Dr. Gary Burdick, writing about this verse, asks, “How can I live without having all the answers?” (Gary Burdick, “How Can I Live Without Having All the Answers?”Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July, 2011, p. 16). For him, as a physicist and a believing Christian, the question is the lack of congruence between what he thinks he has learned from Scripture and what he learns from Creation through science. Since these are both God-given, to his mind, they should correspond. He finds resolution in a stance of humility, in recognizing that for humans there is always something more to learn.
For many of us, the burning questions are less those of geology and biblical teaching, and more those secrets of theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people, of why our life unfolds in the way it does. We too need to find a way to live without all the answers, accepting that there are hidden things, things that by their nature are unknowable.
In her commentary on this week’s portion, Rabbi Aron calls our attention to the verse, “Concealed acts concern the Eternal our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this teaching” (Deuteronomy 29:28). The reference in this verse to “concealed acts”—or knowledge that is not for us—brings to mind a well-known passage from the Talmud about four sages who entered pardes:
“Four entered pardes, namely Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha ben Abuya] and Rabbi Akiva . . . . Ben Azzai gazed and died . . . . Ben Zoma gazed and went insane . . . . Acher cut shoots [i.e. became an apostate]. Rabbi Akiva went out in peace” (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 14b).
The word pardes, first found in late biblical books such as Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), is from a Persian root and means park or garden.1 In this context, however, it appears to refer to mystical knowledge that many of the Rabbis viewed with concern. In fact the Mishnah passage that begins this chapter of Talmud warns about expounding on certain subjects, including the mysteries of creation, in the presence of others. Thus, at its most basic level, this text is a warning of the dangers of pursuing such knowledge.
Each of the Sages mentioned in the story was a respected scholar in the late first and early second centuries CE. Despite their abilities, however, three of the four are not able to endure a direct confrontation with some of the deepest and most challenging philosophical questions, ending up dying, going insane, or becoming an apostate. Only Rabbi Akiva is able to survive his encounter in pardes without adverse consequences.
This passage should not be understood to forbid study of mystical or other questionable material; after all, Rabbi Akiva emerges from his encounter whole. Rather, it warns us of the dangers and challenges of certain teachings. We have certainly seen many people misled by the Bible Codes, a method for finding secrets in the text that has been thoroughly discredited, as well as others who have been led astray by cult leaders. It is sometimes tempting to embrace easy answers to complex and challenging questions. During the High Holy Days, we confront some of the most challenging issues, such as good and evil, life and death. May our tradition guide us as we wrestle with these issues, emerging from this encounter, as Rabbi Akiva, in peace.
"Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,537–1,545; Revised Edition, pp. 1,372–1,381;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,217–1,234"