The Secret Things

“The secret things are for the Lord your God, but the revealed things are for us and our children forever; to do all the words of this Torah”. An enigmatic sentence made all the more striking because of the two sets of dots over the Hebrew words for us and our children which are never adequately explained. On its own, the sentence seems to vaunt the inscrutable knowledge of the divine, far more profound than anything we humans aspire to. But, set in the context of the entire passage, the sentence becomes something of a conundrum.

The passage, in chapter 29 of Deuteronomy, the beginning of parasha Nitzavim, opens with the assembly of the entire nation to enter into a covenant with God. Everyone is there, men, women, children, foreigners, tribal heads, elders, officials and the strangers in your camp from the hewers of wood to the drawers of water. Assent to the oath that the nation is about to take appears to be fully inclusive and truly democratic. Indeed it is so inclusive that the covenant is not just to be concluded with those who are here among us today but even those who are not here, assumed to mean future generations.

Moses, as he proclaims the oath to the people, with its dire warnings, reminds them of the corrupt idolatrous practices they witnessed in Egypt and during their wanderings through the wilderness, as if just the memory of these is an adequate reason to cement the divine covenant. Then, with no warning he changes gear. He no longer addresses the entire nation. Instead, he singles out the recalcitrant evildoers in their midst, no specific individual, but a miscreant who must surely exist. Lest there is among you a man or a woman or a family, or tribe” who go astray to worship other gods, lest there is among you a root bearing gall and wormwood.” This evildoer (the verbs are in the singular now, the idolatrous family or tribe diminished in favour of the individual), when he hears the dire preface to the oath will bless himself in his heart saying’ I will have peace’ because I will walk in the steadfastness of my heart.

Such self-righteousness will not prosper. The miscreant will feel the wrath of God, he will experience all the curses described in the earlier chapters of Deuteronomy, his name shall be blotted out from under heaven. As for the nation; well there is no question in Moses’ address that the whole nation will step out of line. Idolatry, if it occurs at all will be the sin of individuals, not of the entire people.

And yet, immediately after condemning the idolater to eternal oblivion, Moses describes the shock and horror that future generations and other nations will see when they discover the desolation of Land of Israel, barren and waste like the overthrown Sodom and Gomorrah. There seems to be no logical connection between the sentence condemning the idolater and that which immediately follows, graphically describing the destruction of the land, which sounds to our ears as if it has experienced a nuclear holocaust.  It seems as if the land has been destroyed because of the sins of just one person.

Things get even more puzzling when the nations who see the desolate land ask why God has done this. The answer that they give themselves is because his people forgot the covenant and turned to idolatry. Not only is the offence of the nation not mentioned in the previous narrative, it appears that the nations (whoever they are) know about God and his covenant, while the Israelites themselves have forgotten. The nations seem to know far more about Israel’s past, and why they are suffering, that Israel itself presumably does: Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord the God of their fathers which he established with them when he brought them out of Egypt, and went and served other gods….God uprooted them from their land with anger and rage and great wrath and cast them into another land, as they today.

The sequence of events as presented is that of an individual self-righteously excusing himself from any offence in his worshipping idols, leading to the exile of the nation and destruction of the land. New voices appear, pointing out that Israel has forsaken God. It is a strange narrative, which we can creatively interpret in many ways. But we don’t need to. For we read in the final sentence of the passage: The secret things are for the Lord your God, but the revealed things are for us and our children forever. In other words, this is a passage with obscurities that lie beyond us. All one need do is concern oneself with are the revealed things; to do all the words of this Torah.