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Nitzavim and Vayeylech

Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30 - Secrets by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

This week’s Torah includes this sentence. “The hidden ( secrets) belong to our God and the revealed things are for us and our children forever. To carry out all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 29:28).


This is my translation. But the most common one is “Concealed acts concern our God but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.”


This obscure line in the Torah reading this week is obscure for two reasons. What exactly does it mean and why are there a series of unusual dots in the text of the Torah over the phrase “us and our children”?


Most commentators see this phrase to mean that those bad acts that we do in secret are going to be judged by God in a spiritual world. But those things that we do wrong in public should be judged by us human beings. So that this is a statement about retribution and the need to adhere to the law and enforce it. But the law can only deal with what can be discovered, witnessed, or verified. Indeed, that is what Rashi’s commentary says, that we are all obliged to deal with evil and corruption. But what we can't, that is God’s business. Another explanation is that of Adin Steinsaltz who says in his commentary that we have to eliminate evil in general not just to avoid doing wrong ourselves in our private lives.


Yet as often is the case the great Spanish polymath and commentator Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) gives a completely different take on this sentence. He says that it refers to what we can or should study about the world we inhabit. Some religious people claim all we need to know is what's written in the Torah and nothing else matters. But he was a philosopher and a scientist as well as a rabbi and he said that there is neither rhyme nor reason, or as he put it, neither head nor leg, for this interpretation. Quite the contrary we do have an obligation to study scientifically and technologically everything we possibly can about the universe. But there are certain things that we either do not yet know or cannot know or are simply beyond our human limitations. They inhabit mysterious or mystical realms which may defy logic at one moment even if it becomes clear later. And therefore, certain things belong to the realm of the Divine. That we cannot fathom. On the other hand, the Torah reveals to us how we should live on earth in the present. Everything that is revealed in the Torah is about our world and is for us to deal with. And to live effectively on earth we should try to find out as much as we can about the world in which we live.


As for the dots on “lanu ulevaneynu” “For us and to our children,” there too are different ways of understanding why these dots are there and what are they trying to tell us. Given the context of this speech of Moshe, he addressed the men the women, and the children of Israel all together. Everyone was included, not just the scholars or the religious leaders. But everyone. The importance of family is of passing on a tradition from one generation to another, which can be done by living and practicing it.


In Judaism important as the relationship with God is, the importance of family passing on to the next generation to ensure continuity, is reiterated all the time, in the Passover seder, and the daily prayers throughout the year. These dots are a way of adding emphasis to a theme that already exists in the Torah that we need to stress because we are not just a religion, we are a people a culture, and a tradition. And all of this needs to be transmitted from one generation and one family to the next.


Shabbat Shalom

Jeremy


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Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.

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